Mesocosm

History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

Various Matters

leave a comment »

"Idole cloche," Thebes, c. 700 BCE (Louvre)

“Idole cloche,” Thebes, c. 700 BCE, Louvre (click to enlarge)

What we have in this image is one of my favorite pieces from the Greek antiquities collection of the Louvre. This goddess “bell statue” comes to us from Thebes c. 700 BCE, and it’s a stunning example of the Geometric period of Greek art. The sense of the goddess as all-encompassing is conveyed by her bell-shape and is amplified by the inscription on her surface of various marks typically expressive of the round of life and death in that age, such as the Swastika.

In unrelated news, sounds like I’m late to hear this, but I’m excited that The Diary of Malcolm X: 1964 is due to be published this week, assuming it isn’t successfully blocked by some family members. I certainly hope it appears in print as-scheduled – 1964 is the year Malcolm X undertook the Hajj, which was a milestone in his own life, and for the course of civil rights activism in the United States as a whole. I also very much see Malcolm X’s spiritual journey as textbook case of Jungian individuation, so it’s fascinating to study in that light as well.

Let’s see … what else? I’ve been working on a mammoth post on the Gothic cathedrals for some time, but have been bogged down by the magnitude of the topic. Even to point in a cursory way to a handful of the key features is an enormous job, but I hope to get it up soon.

Via the always-excellent Medievalists.net, I give you Catṡlechta and other medieval legal material relating to cats, a study of medieval Irish laws pertaining to cats. It contains gems such as:

BREONE i.e. This is a cat and she has purring and protecting (or an inarticulate cry) and three cows are paid for it if it has both, purring and protecting. If it has one of the two, it is a cow and a heifer or there might not be anything for purring at all and that obtains whenever it is more than or equal to that which it protects.

Read, and enjoy.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Ephemera

Digital Humanism; a Response to Byung-Chul Han

leave a comment »

Fernsehturm Berlin

Fernsehturm Berlin

I’ve been reading the German social theorist Byung-Chul Han’s critique of digital culture with interest since I first stumbled upon his arresting concept of the Transparency Society, of which he is not a fan. I wrote about the Transparency Society here, but to briefly recap, the term refers to a culture of digital disclosure and mutual voyeurism that embraces openness and connectedness as intrinsic goods. In Han’s analysis, this leads to a devaluation of true intimacy and connection, which require an interplay of disclosure and concealment.

As a guy who works in Menlo Park for one of Han’s favorite targets of criticsm, it’s valuable for me to engage with a forceful critic of the new model openness, which he associates with social media and Big Data in the US and with the fringe Pirate Party at home.

When Han declines to differentiate between different forms of exposure – for example, between voluntary self-disclosure in social media and government surveillance – this signals his intentional flattening of the various conditions by which societies become transparent to technology. This strategy reflects what I believe to be a staunchly anti-humanist philosophy.

What do I mean by anti-humanism? Han is interested in the ways that information networks constrain and shape human action and experience, which puts him in the lineage of Continental anti-humanists including Derrida and Foucault.

Foucault’s career was dominated by his interest in the ways in which individual subjectivity is molded by social discourse, particularly discourses of alterity and power, into which we are assimilated and by which we perceive and value the world.

Derrida focused on deconstructing the European metaphysical tradition, especially its prejudice in favor of presence, which has historically been regarded as the ideal, pure forms of being, as opposed to contingency, lack, and absence, which are negative states of imperfection.

Han’s debt to these critiques is clear. In his fascinating book Abwesen, he contrasts Western and Eastern modes of metaphysical discourse, citing Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and contrasting it to the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of emptiness and non-action. While the Platonist conceives of ultimate reality in terms of an everlasting and pure realm of being, the canonical expression of ultimate reality in China and Japan is the sage who embodies its realization. Such a sage is frequently depicted as a wanderer without a home, who leaves no trace. This ideal sage is mobile, embodied, enigmatic, and composed of the play of light and shadow.

This strategy of valuing the hidden, the absent, and the transitory is central to Han’s critique of Transparency Society, which he diagnoses as a classical expression of the Western inability to tolerate these “impure” states. The voyeur has an insatiable need to know, to unmask, and to unconceal, and thus devours the hours reading news and paging through Facebook updates and microblogs.

By this unmasking, the spirit of the encounter is lost, and wisdom is exchanged for the accumulation of facts. Other casualties of the Transparency Society include theory and ideology.

Han persuasively argues in his “Digital Rationality and the End of Communicative Action” that online political activism is post-ideological. Because of its characteristic methods of interaction, the Internet does not give rise to collective ideology or the formation of mass political parties. You may see mass action rising out of the Internet, but we have not yet seen real mass movements, because the Internet fractures discourse and exerts a “centrifugal” pressure by which individuals increasingly speak in isolation to micro-audiences. This does not encourage the formulation of mass ideology, or support the development of long-term political platforms.

Although Han makes this argument on a theoretical level, it’s worth noting that this closely agrees with the findings of sociologists examining the role of social media in the Occupy movement as well as mass protests in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyze that point in depth, but I can refer to a few examples.

I was struck earlier this year, when reading about massive protests in São Paulo, when the Guardian had this to say:

Lucio Flavio Rodrigues de Almeida, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said the authorities had so far responded only with repressive actions against protests that had morphed in character and size and were being organized by an amorphous social network rather than political parties. (emphasis added)

This is just what we find in similar cases – political action is triggered by a catalyzing event, such as an AdBusters campaign, or protests over bus fares, which avalanche into massive, loosely-organized protests reflecting variety of complaints, often having little relationship to the initial cause of the action. Where such movements fail is their recurring inability to consolidate a sustained platform, or to create mechanisms for long-term advocacy.

In short, we have sound empirical evidence that Internet-based political activism has indeed thus far been post-ideological, in Han’s sense. Let’s have a closer look at how he uses this concept.

In “Digital Rationality,” Han cites a notorious screed by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. This widely-criticized opinion piece argues that with the rise of Big Data, we no longer need to look for underlying principles, because we no longer need to understand – we have enough data simply to act on the basis of correlation, and we can leave theorizing to philosophers and children.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Big Data, then, destroys synthetic linkages that organize individual actors into political parties, and that organize individual data points into theory. The overall movement is simultaneously one of aggregation and fragmentation.

Han recently published an opinion piece for Die Zeit called Data-ism and Nihilism, which inspired me to collect my thoughts and to write this response. He briefly summarizes a number of the points I’m recounting here, and reads the post-ideological stance of Big Data as a new form of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s colorful sense of the term – that is, as the character of a degenerate culture that is incapable of positing and realizing its own sense of value from out of its own creative potentialities.

Han’s Data-ism is a culture of facts without meaning, of iPhone confessionals, in which dazed wanderers interpret the Delphic Oracle’s “Know thyself” as an injunction to post their weight automatically to Facebook with newfangled watches. It’s fragmentary and alienating, but at the same time is intolerant of distance or unknowing. It is a dark digital age.

**

In reading this editorial, I came to realize that my interest in Han was born largely out of honing my own perspective in stark contrast to his critique, and this leads me to posit and argue for a counter-balancing position that I’ll call digital humanism.

I like the way that Han brings Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence into dialog with Buddhism and Taoism, and I find him to be a sensitive and cogent expositor of texts, even if he is not a profound theoretician. And I find his critique of techno-culture refreshing, surrounded as I am by so-called futurists, technology optimists and Utopians. The further you get from Silicon Valley, it seems, the more critical and conservative you find the prevailing attitudes about Internet culture. Stuart Brand, Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg are of California, while Han is of Western Europe.

Where I differ sharply with Han is his anti-humanist posture. In Han’s account, technology is not a means to human ends; it is something that happens to people, like the weather. It shapes and binds us to certain channels and procedures, but it doesn’t liberate us or put us into contact with knowledge or ideas.

This is only half of the dialectic, and by studiously ignoring the uses to which intentional actors put technology makes a caricature of modern digital culture.

My own studies of culture, philosophy, and history have been enormously augmented by information technology. The gains are so pervasive and profound, it would be an exercise in the obvious to catalog them. I’ll just note as one of countless examples that the free, instantaneous availability of several German newspapers allowed me to discover Han’s critiques, and this blog is where I can publicly respond.

If Han can only regard media culture in the light of its systemic effects and its constraints on human agents, and he can make no allowance for human agency or design, then surely we must ask, who is the nihilist here?

As a counterpoint to the digital anti-humanism that Han embraces, I suggest a digital humanism, which values technology insofar as it is a means to legitimate and moral human purposes.

There is a long tradition among European intellectuals of demonizing technology, visible in the work of theorists such as Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Heidegger. But technology can liberate as well as bind, and can open as well as close. Technology is not a mere accidental accretion of human civilization, it is a product and tool of human endeavor and deliberation. It cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding the uses to which it is put.

We can critique technology without rejecting human agency and value, just as we can value technology without subcoming to blind Utopianism. It begins by reflectively evaluating our own values and needs, and considering the uses to which we put technology in our own lives.

Know thy digital self, and monitor where your hours go.

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Words of Manjushri

with 2 comments

Fifth Dalai Lama, 17th Century Art Institute of Chicago

Fifth Dalai Lama, 17th Century
Art Institute of Chicago

The Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682) is one of the most fascinating figures in Tibetan history. He was a great statesman who unified Tibet under the Gelukpa order and the Ganden Podrang for several centuries. He was no less great as a literary figure, whose collected works include some of the masterpieces of Tibetan religious writing and a marvelously shrewd autobiography. One day I’ll write more about his extraordinary life and death.

This short piece, drawn from “Words of Manjushri,” shows him in a poetic and contemplative mood. He presents the basic stance of Tibetan Buddhist psychology in an unusual, intensely-personal voice, to moving effect.

Some of the striking images are drawn from Tibetan philosophy, such as the spinning torch, which evokes an illusion whereby a spinning torch appears to be a circle of fire. That image is linked to the concept of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death, which is likewise fueled by a misidentification of the nature of reality. – m
 

What happened before?
Someone has been in my mind for time with no beginning.

When was that?
There has never been a moment when they were gone.

Who are they?
I live, and live again; the mental afflictions.

And in the end?
They will leave me alone to rot in the ocean of suffering life, without an end in sight.

And the karma?
It comes like the wind, with all the things I never wanted.

How far?
It whips around me everywhere and stirs great waves – the three forms of suffering.

How long?
I could wander around this sea forever – the torch would spin and the circle of light would blaze.

What should I see?
Think on this, and see that the afflictions of the mind are the one true enemy.

What must be done?
The enemy of living for this life must die.

Who shall do it?
You must pretend that you are warrior enough to be the one.

When will it come?
Your foes, the afflictions in your mind, have always been waiting, ready for the battle.

Now, then?
The time has surely come – go forth now and defeat them.

Written by Mesocosm

August 11, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The shamanic heart still beats in Europe

with one comment

CAPTION

Pelzmärtle, by Charles Fréger

The April 2013 issue of National Geographic contains a stunning article by Rachel Hartingan Shea called “Europe’s Wild Men.” It describes a project by photographer Charles Fréger, who spent two winters traveling around Europe to document a spectacular array of winter festival costumes. Collected in his book Wilder Mann, these images reveal the dark vitality of ancient, pre-Christian mythic rites that live on in European celebrations, year after year.

This fellow to the right, for example, is the German character Pelzmärtle (or Pelzmärtel), who appears at your door with the Christ Child on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the village of Bad Herrenalb, “to scold naughty children and wrap them with a stick.” The elaborate straw costume is sewed onto its wearer. Then Pelzmärtle makes his way through the town, traveling from travels from door to door and ringing the bell with hoots and hollers.

Compare this tradition to the Hopi Powamu Bean Planting Ceremony, described Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods. This elaborate eight-day festival celebrates the return of the Kachina gods to the pueblo with a series of dances and precessions of figures in magnificent costumes (we looked at a related Zuni festival in this earlier post). Fergusson describes the action as follows:

Late on the fifth night Hahawuaqi, “mother of the terrifying monsters,” appears upon the kiva roof and announces in her weird falsetto call that she has arrived and wishes to see the children. An answering voice responds that the children have all gone to bed and urges her to postpone her visit until morning. Thus are the children warned of the presence of the horrible and thrilling beings who bring gifts for good children and punishment for naughty ones. It must fill with trepidation many a little brown Hopi snuggled into blankets and fearfully eager for the coming day.

Yet the monsters and their mother do not emerge until late afternoon, when they appear in procession. The mother, a man, leading, wears the black dress and a white mantle and leggings. Her mask is a flat black face, with hair in pigtails such as the women wear, feathers raying from the crown, and a fox-skin ruff. She carries a long Juniper whip, a whitened dipper, and a flat tray covered with gifts for the children: ears of corn, seeds, and bundles of sticks for little girls, and tiny snares of yucca fiber for little boys. The other woman figure, Soyokmana, is such a terrifying old witch as every people in the world seems to have invented to scare children into virtue. She is dressed like the “mother,” but her hair is straggling, her clothes are old and dirty, and she carries a crook in one hand and a knife in the other. The others (Natacka) usually appear in Navajo velvet shirts, belted around slim waists with heavy silver belts, and with white buckskin mantles over the shoulders. They all wear terrifying masks: great snouts, bulging eyes, and horns. Each carries a bow and arrows in his left hand, leaving the right hand free to receive gifts, for this is a begging expedition.

There are three such groups, one for each village. They visit every house in their own village, and every house in the other two villages into which one of their men has married. For in Hopiland the custom still lingers of a man’s going to his wife’s people. So one meets them everywhere, hooting as they pass along the crooked streets and as the “mother” calls at every door or at the top of every ladder. Her queer cry always brings out women with food or children to be admonished. Children cling to their mothers or to each other, bright black eyes peering bravely over blanket folds, or they stand sturdily to face the fearful being, determinedly not afraid. (1)

It is impossible not to be forcefully reminded of such traditions looking at the array of unnerving costumes so marvelously captured by Fréger.

The full photo gallery is viewable here.

 
References
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. pp.127-8.

Written by Mesocosm

April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

Heiner Müller on “Hamlet Machine,” 1977

leave a comment »

“I want to live in my veins, in the marrow of my bones, in the labyrinth of my skull.” – Die Hamletmaschine

The following is my original translation of German playwright Heiner Müller’s reflections on the composition of his play “Hamlet Machine,” drawn from his autobiography War Without Slaughter; A Life under Two Dictatorships. For my analysis of the play, see Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”.

There is very little available on Müller’s work in English, so I hope this will be a useful reference for interested readers. The play itself available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).

Mauzer-Hamlet_masina

Heiner Müller: When the year 1977 began, I was hanging around in Bulgaria again. I had filled an entire Bulgarian schoolbook with notes, drafts, and sketches of pieces. And just across from the highrise where Ginka had a flat stood the biggest power plant in Sofia, the “Traicho Kostov.”

Traicho Kostov was the Bulgarian equivalent of [László] Rajk. [László Rajk was a Hungarian Communist who was persecuted in Stalinist show trials and then executed in 1949.] Kostov was executed during the great purges.

Kostov had been Secretary under [Georgi] Dimitrov. According to the Bulgarian interpretation, Dimitrov was killed during “medical procedures” in Moscow. He had been in talks with [Yugoslavian autocrat] Tito about leading a Balkan Federation. Then he became ill and flew to Moscow for the better medical facilities, and there he died. Then the trials started up, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, in the USSR, in Poland. That was the beginning of the 50s.

In Bulgaria, Traicho Kostov was the designated agent of imperialism. He was the only one of them who hadn’t made a confession, so they just had him killed, because they had become impatient and time was marching on. And after the Rehabilitation, this central power plant was named after him.

I had been planning for a long time to write a piece on Hamlet. I was interested in writing a version in which Hamlet was the son of a Rajk, Slansky, or Kostov. I didn’t know much about Kostov before – I knew a bit more about Rajk. That was the best-known case. Hamlet comes home from his father’s state funeral, and he has to carry on. Hamlet in Budapest. I envisioned a two-hundred-page work to lay out the whole problem.

Then I came back to Berlin, and [the Swiss director Benno] Besson wanted to stage Hamlet, and he asked me if I could translate it in four weeks, because that’s when he had to start. I said it wasn’t going to happen in four weeks, so he asked “What is the best translation?” I told him the one by Dresen and Hamburger would be the best. The performance I had seen in Greifswald was very good, and it also led to Dresen coming to the Deutsche Theater [in Berlin].

Besson had already started rehearsals with that translation. Matthias Langhoff was the director’s assistant because it interested him. He kept coming by with questions for me from Besson. This or that passage didn’t work, so I should change it.

In the meantime, Langhoff became bored by the rehearsals and was happy when we got together to work on the text. Then it became more and more a new translation. The actors couldn’t learn the new script fast enough, and for the dress rehearsal they delivered a composite of the old and new translations. Subsequently there was a plagiarism lawsuit.

Anyway, when I was finished with the translation, I saw my own plan in a new light. Then came this new nine-page work very quickly, “Hamlet Machine,” like a shrunken head.

I had already noticed in Bulgaria that it would be impossible to create dialog out of this material, if we were to travel into the world of so-called actual Socialism-Stalinism. It was a place where there was no dialog any longer. I had already seen, again and again, that it didn’t work, there was no dialog, only blocks of monolog, and that shrank the entirety down to this text. The theme of Budapest in 1956 also produced no dialog.

Caption

Naked Man with Knife
Jackson Pollock, c 1940

The history of the RAF, also material for the play, was [likewise] a single breakneck monolog. [The RAF, or Red Army Faction, was a far-left terrorist group led by the radical activist Andreas Baader and former journalist Ulrike Meinhof.]

After a failed action against the Spiegel [newspaper] offices, the Baader Group, along with Ulrike Meinhof, threw the furniture out the window of the apartment she shared with her husband, the editor-in-chief of Konkret. The destruction of the bourgeois life context, the withdrawal from the bourgeois life and the entry into illegality – that interested me.

[During Ophelia's long monolog near the beginning of the play, she states “I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home.” (1)]

Then there was the echo of Charles Manson. The final movement [of Ophelia's monolog in “Hamet Machine”] is from Susan Atkins, member of his “family,” one of the murderers of Sharon Tate, who was famous for her “scaring phone calls.” One was cited in Life. I had read about it in Bulgaria by coincidence – in Bulgaria I depended on coincidence, when it came to reading. The sentence was “When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives, you’ll know the truth.” [This line, spoken by Ophelia, ends the play.]

I had no title for the text. Betty Weber, a German scholar from Texas, had a plan to publish one volume with [the prominent German publisher] Suhrkamp, with my attempt withs and at Shakespeare. So we had to find a title, and through Andy Warhol I came up with “Shakespeare Factory.” That brought me back to Duchamp’s “Bachelor Machine,” and to “Hamlet Machine” as the work’s title.

The Suhrkamp project failed, because it was essential to me to have the photo in there, of Ulrike Meinhof down from the gallows. [Meinhof was found hanged in her prison cell before her trial concluded in 1976.] Unseld said “That’s not possible, that cannot appear in my publishing house.” For me it was a point of honor. That’s why it didn’t appear in Suhrkamp.

One can make many things of “Hamlet Machine.” First of all, the impossibility of using dialog in this material certainly signifies stagnation. And if nothing occurs on the male plane, the women must come up with something. And so forth. Lenin always said, the Movement comes from the provinces, and woman is the province of man.

The machine metaphor may have something to do with the factory opposite the place in Sofia, too. I would have not have been able to write the piece without the trip to America – certainly, not without the travel to the west. Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka was certainly important, because it dealt with the province, with the mobilization of the province. Criminality is also a province.

“Hamlet Machine” was not staged with Hamlet as I had hoped, at that time. It was banned until the fall of the DDR.

It was through the aforementioned plagiarism trial that I made the acquaintance of [the prominent left-wing politician and attorney] Gregor Gysi. There was a plagiarism trial, which took place in Leipzig, brought by Dresen and Hamburger against my translation. Gysi was our lawyer, Hamburger represented himself. He said that history has shown that no one could independently produce a translation of a Shakespeare play in two months. That was completely impossible. Gysi said “That just demonstrates the brilliance of my clients.”

He won the trial.

References
1) Müller H. “Hamletmaschine”. from Hamletmaschine and Other Texts for the Stage. ed. Carl Weber. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p.54.

Written by Mesocosm

April 21, 2013 at 9:21 am

Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”

leave a comment »

Ophelia

Ophelia, John Everett Millais
Image by Barnaby Thieme

I throw open the doors, to let in the wind and the cry of the world. – Ophelia

Although not well known to English-speaking audiences, Heiner Müller is considered by many Germans to be a leading dramatist of the twentieth century. Many of his plays rework classical myths in a struggle to make sense of the collision between mythology and ideology in post-war Eastern Europe.

His Hamlet Machine is a postmodern masterpiece and a harrowing portrait of life under totalitarian rule. Much of the complex work consists of dramatic monologs, dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s play and other monuments of European culture and history.

The Hamlet-actor begins in Brechtian mode, aware of his own role in the ensuing drama, announcing: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLAH BLAH, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” (1) These lines echo the Fisher King of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who “sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. (2)

Like Eliot, Müller also presents “a heap of broken images,” where mythological symbols flail like broken engines, gesturing wildly toward inhuman meanings.

In Shakespeare’s play, it will be recalled, the hero’s father fell victim to murder at his uncle’s hands, abetted by Hamlet’s complicit mother. Hamlet Machine describes the funeral thus: “The bells tolled the state-funeral, murderer and widow a couple, the councilors goose-stepping behind the highranking carcass’ coffin, bawling with badly paid grief”. (3)

Müller’s inspiration for Hamlet’s father was Traitscho Kostoff, a Bulgarian communist who was executed in a Stalinist purge. (4) Contemporary audiences may sooner think of the bizarre state funeral of Kim Jong-Il, but the subject of the allusion does not matter. While different actors play the parts, arriving on cue for their prescribed roles, the historical drama does not change. Hamlet reflects:

The set is a monument. It presents a man who made history, enlarged a hundred times. The petrification of a hope. The name is interchangeable, the hope has not been fulfilled. The monument is toppled into dust. (5)

Historical action is fixed by a small number of possibilities, pre-determined by unpersuasive narratives that bind action to violence and oppression. Even the utopian visions they nominally serve have lost the power to persuade or animate. One thinks of the playacting technocrats of Müller’s East Germany, tunelessly singing Marxist-Leninist songs.

As the play proceeds, the Hamlet-actor attempts to reject the role to which he has been consigned, refusing to go along with this murder-drama. The dramatic action breaks down, and a political demonstration explodes onto the stage, suggesting the 1967-8 student protests in Berlin.

The Hamlet-actor is swept up in the angry mob and pushed to the police lines, where, in one arresting image, he confronts his own reflection in bullet-proof glass, and sees himself facing himself from the opposite side of the line.

He responds with rage to his own complicity in totalitarianism:

Heiner Müller

Heiner Müller

I look through the double doors of bullet-proof glass at the crowd pressing forward and smell the sweat of my fear. Choking with nausea, I shake my fist at myself who stands behind the bullet-proof glass. Shaking with fear and contempt, I see myself in the crowd pressing forward, foaming at the mouth, shaking my fist at myself. (6)

He then goes home to watch television, “at one / with my undivided self.” (7) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inaction is a fatal flaw, but when all courses lead to murder, and the character is forced to choose between several dreadful alternatives. Inaction and action both mean self-betrayal, and purity is found only in death, or, in its political equivalent, television.

***

“I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep.”

Ophelia chooses suicide instead of murder. Like Nietzsche’s ascetic, her violence turns inward, sublimating her will to power. Her character represents a type for Müller, a woman whose inflexible moral code renders her capable of anything.
 
She is the “woman dangling from a rope,” suggesting the far-left RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, whose strident critique of hegemonic capitalism ignited a series of bank robberies and murders. (8) Eventually she was captured, and hung herself in her cell.

Müller’s Ophelia would also choose death as a way of dismembering the mechanisms of oppression:

I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home. I fling open the doors so the wind gets in and the screams of the world. I smash the window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. (9)

Compare to Meinhof’s approving citation of Fritz Teufel’s statement that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one,” written after her group set fire to a Frankfurt department store in 1968 “to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam.” (10)

***

Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:

In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (11)

Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.

After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.

caption

Flandern (detail)
Franz Radziwill
Image by Barnaby Thieme

I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)…. (12)

In these early memories, we find the germ of his later political views. Müller would remain a socialist for the rest of his life, though he appears to have been deeply demoralized by Stalin’s tyrannical abuses. He was tolerated as a high-profile artist of the GDR, but was also a fierce critic of his country. Hamlet Machine was banned in East Germany until its final days. (13)

Perhaps in these early memories, we also find the seeds of his feverish, fragmentary style. Hamlet Machine resembles the disjointed impressions of a child-dreamer, woken from sleep by disturbing events for which he has no context or compass.

Perhaps Müller seeks to bring his audience to that moment of his childhood, to share with them his epiphany of chaos. It may be the only truth of which he was certain.

***

“One can make many things of Hamlet Machine,” Müller said. “First of all, its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation.” (14) Indeed, the play is notoriously difficult to stage. The playwright Tony Kushner notes:

Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (15)

This may gives a clue to the title of Müller’s play. It is sometimes taken to refer to the author himself, i.e., Hamletmaschine (HM) = Heiner Müller (HM). The author himself “carefully disseminated this interpretation.” (16)

I prefer to think of the play itself as a meaning-making machine. It runs on interpreters, directors, actors, readers, and an audience; all are free to move among its fragments, and to create something for themselves.

 
Notes
This essay originally appeared on the Modern Mythology blog here.

Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine is available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).

 
References
1) Müller H. ed. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for stage. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p. 53
2) Eliot T. S. “The Waste Land,” lines 423-5, from The Complete Poems and Plays; 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1971. p. 50.
3) Müller, 1984. p. 53
4) Müller H. Krieg Ohne Schlacht; Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994. p. 292
5) Müller, 1984. p. 56
6) Müller, 1984. p. 56
7) Müller, 1984. p. 56
8) Müller, 1994. p. 294
9) Müller, 1984. p. 54-5
10) Meinhof U. “Setting Fire to Department Stores.” from Everybody Talks About The Weather … We Don’t; The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. ed. Karin Bauer. Seven Stories Press. 2008. p. 248
11) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
12) Müller, 2001. p. 15
13) Müller, 1994. p. 296
14) Müller, 1994. p. 295
15) Kushner, T. “Foreward,” from Müller, 2001. p. xvi
16) Müller, 1984. p. 51

Written by Mesocosm

April 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Articles

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Arnold Schoenberg

with one comment

My first exposure to Schoenberg’s music was Glenn Gould’s performance of the gigue from opus 25 “Suite for Piano” – you can hear it for yourself in the YouTube link to the right. I hope that you will – I’ll wait until you have a chance.

A lot of complete nonsense has been written about Schoenberg’s music, often implying that it embodies an anarchic spirit of modernist rebellion. Some even accuse Schoenberg and his followers of rejecting the very foundations of western music in favor of novel patterns of sound that are not even properly called “musical.”

In truth, Schoenberg was concerned with the history of European composition and theory to a degree seldom found in composers. The care that he took to organize musical ideas is easily discernible in the Gould performances, thanks to the pianist’s miraculous capacity to differentiate and clarify independent voices within compositions.

Certainly, Schoenberg formal interests have little to do with the dramatic principles of tension and release that dominated the western idiom since Haydn. Instead, he is concerned with the melodic and harmonic development of motifs, and in this sense, his work constitutes not a rejection of traditional forms, but a return to the strategies that preoccupied composers from the birth of polyphony in the High Middle Ages all the way down to the classical period. Indeed, Schoenberg reminds me of no composer so much as Bach, with his keen architectonic attention and melodic inventiveness.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is based on constructing a fixed melodic sequence called a “row” out of all twelve notes of the chromatic series. He then uses the row as the basis for a piece of music, perhaps deploying it as the principle theme, or varying it in countless ways.

This approach resembles the strategies used by all Renaissance polyphonic composers to construct melodic lines based on variations of principle themes, with their inversions, crab or puzzle canons, and fugues. One is particularly reminded of “parody masses,” a common form of composition based on melodies lifted from popular songs. The secular song “L’homme armé” alone was used as the basis for hundreds of masses.

The groundwork for Schoenberg’s compositional theory was laid decades before he began his work. Wagner’s Ring was far too long to be persuasively organized by alternations of dissonance and resolution, so it was stitched together by melodic motives, or recurring melodic figures that he associated with ideas from the libretto. Brahms relied on motives as a framework for instrumental writing in some of his symphonies, and Mahler experimented with progressive tonality, by which his symphonies might conclude in a key unrelated to the tonic.

Schoenberg was precisely the opposite of an anarchist – he was an architect of a very high order, and knew exactly what he was doing, and how he stood in relationship to musical history. He once wrote:

I used to say, ‘Bach is the first composer with twelve tones.’ This was a joke, of course. I did not even know whether somebody before him might have deserved this title. But the truth on which this statement is based is that the Fugue No. 24 of the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, in B minor, begins with a Dux in which all twelve tones appear. (1)

Have a listen to that fugue (again played by Glenn Gould) in the YouTube player to the right, and see if you can note the deep similarities to the gigue we heard before. Both of them are principally organized by parallel melodic progressions that are organized in harmonic relationships such that their simultaneous occurrence with other melodic lines contributes to the overall effect. Both of them are highly chromatic. What, then, is the difference between them?

Schoenberg’s work abound with more dissonant intervals, perhaps, but then, he argued that our perception of dissonance is largely a matter of familiarity.

Now, there will always be those who respond to this argument by maintaining that there is a natural basis for our perception of consonant musical intervals based on simple integer ratios between string length. You can expect to hear the names of Pythagoras, Boethius, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This argument is persuasive at a glance, but the diabolus in musica is in the details. It turns out that constructing a musical scale requires substantial modifications of the great Platonic order simply to produce an instrument capable of playing in multiple keys.

And can anyone really argue that dissonant relationships are intrinsically disturbing at this late date? The most dissonant interval playable on a piano is the augmented fourth, and this interval occurs in dominant seventh chords. A malignant dominant seventh might have sent a medieval chorister fleeing from the room in terror, but the Beatles use it in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for heaven’s sake, which is not exactly the stuff of modernism.

Charles Rosen argued in his study of Schoenberg that people are not really disturbed by the nominally dissonant intervals in serialist music, but by the lack of cadence (2). Listeners lack familiar cues that help them predict the flow of a musical passage, and they find it disturbing.

For my own tastes, I find serialism to be most disturbing when orchestral works leap repeatedly from whisper-quiet string segments to sudden explosions of honking brass. I don’t go in for these shenanigans, myself – I regard it as a cheap tactic. Yes, it produces an effect, much as shouting at someone all of a sudden gets their attention.

But anyone who believes that serialist music must be unlovely should really spend some time with Berg’s violin concerto, which may well be the finest concerto written in the entire twentieth century.

I hope to return to this topic at a later date to explore some interesting related issues, including the biography of Arnold Schoenberg, which, if it were presented as a work of fiction, would be rejected as too fantastic to be believed. It’s also worth exploring other techniques for composing outside of classical tonality, such as those employed by Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen, two of the greatest composers of the last century.

Correction
Thanks to DJ for pointing out that the augmented fourth is found in the dominant seven, not the major seven chord.

References
1) Schoenberg A. “Bach (1950).” from Style and Idea; Selected Writings. University of California Press. 1975. pg. 393.
2) Rosen C. Arnold Schoenberg. Princeton University Press. 1975.

Written by Mesocosm

March 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

Posted in Articles, Music

Tagged with , ,

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers