Beethoven

BeethovenLudwig von Beethoven is one of those larger-than-life cultural figures who towers over Western Civilization like a Colossus. Is the man worthy of this mythological status? As a human being, far from it; as a composer of music, very much so. In Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford has written a biography and musical survey of Beethoven that is worthy of the subject and surely sets the standards (very high) for any future works on Beethoven. The book is nearly a thousand pages long but I was so absorbed in the narratives that I didn’t mind the length at all.

Swafford places Beethoven firmly in his cultural and historical contexts. His discussion of the Enlightenment as developed in Bonn is particularly interesting as its formative influence on Beethoven was deep. Schiller’s famous Ode to Joy was published during Beethoven’s youth and it haunted the composer throughout his life, giving him a lifelong intention to set it to music which he finally did in the ninth symphony. Then there is Napoleon, another towering figure of the Age who inspired humanistic idealism in Beethoven as well as many others, only to end in disillusionment when he crowned himself emperor of France. Beethoven’s richest period of frenetic composing coincided with the Napoleonic wars and the disruptions they caused, not least in Vienna. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Austria sank into a police state where instrumental music was about the only area with some freedom. Although Beethoven was too grounded in the classical tradition to be a Romantic figure, he roughly pushed enough envelopes to be possibly the most inspiring figure of the Romantic Movement wit E.T.A. Hoffman the first to build the Romantic mythology around Beethoven.

The sad narrative of Beethoven’s life is told with novelistic detail and immediacy. Not only Beethoven’s famously cantankerous personality but those of dozens of other important figures in the composer’s life come alive in the telling. The idealism Beethoven believed in and embodied in the nobility of his greatest works did not translate into Beethoven’s daily life. Time after time, the reader winces at Beethoven’s inability to understand any individual person besides himself. His problem isn’t so much a willful egoism so much as a constitutional problem with him, exacerbated by his deafness. I wonder if it might also show the weakness of Enlightenment idealism which stirred love for humanity in general but not for humans in particular. That surely catches Beethoven’s personality in a nutshell. Beethoven could be a devoted and intense friend but he quarreled with nearly all of his friends throughout his life. His problematic relationship with his nephew Karl is particularly painful. When Beethoven’s brother died, Ludwig devoted himself to an ugly custody battle with Karl’s mother. To be blunt and short: Beethoven was not cut out to be a good father figure for an orphaned child. Beethoven’s dealings with music publishers were shabbier than their dealings with him. (If royalties had been invented back then, Beethoven would have been less desperate about money.) The sad saga of Beethoven’s hopes for a companion is marriage is pitiful, though understandable, from the point of view of any woman who ever lived.

The book’s greatest strength, for me anyway, is the discussion of Beethoven’s music. Some rudimentary knowledge of music theory or better would be helpful for any reader, but Swafford’s ability to make Beethoven’s musical works sound like awesome adventure stories might carry along some readers who lack such knowledge. Every work of Beethoven’s of any consequence (and there are many) is discussed with at least a page’s worth of pinpointed criticism, and the most complex works, such as the Eroica and ninth symphonies, are given the epic treatment they deserve. Swafford’s probing analyses reminded me of the frisson of my own first encounters with these great works as a child and adolescent: the amazing start of the Eroica and the numinous opening of the ninth, to name a couple. Swafford also demonstrates how profound Beethoven could be in simplicity as he was in the Pastoral Symphony and the Mass in C Major, a work underrated then as much as it is now. Much attention is given to Mozart’s drawing upon and reacting to his immediate predecessors Mozart and Haydn. Haydn was as much a rival as a mentor to Beethoven. Poor Papa Haydn was traumatized by Beethoven’s early C Minor piano trio and the Eroica shattered his life musical world. As a youth, Beethoven was lucky enough to be introduced to JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier which loomed as a great formative influence throughout his life. Many writers have written fine things about the transcendent late works such as the final piano sonatas & the last string quartets, but Swafford outdoes all of them in leading the reader to the heights of these incredible works.

Beethoven could be problematic not only as a person but even as a composer. For a century, he was a formidable challenge to all other composers. The final movement of his B-flat quartet, known as the Grosse Fugue is as bewildering today as Bartok’s string quartets. Not only was Beethoven a musical pioneer in his own time, he is still well ahead of us today. To tell the truth, I find the subtleties of Mozart and Schubert rich territory for my musical wanderings, but Beethoven’s storming the heavens and then gently floating up into and above them is an important part of my musical life as well.

All this is to say that I recommend Swafford’s book on Beethoven with no reservations. He leaves me hoping that Schubert is next on his list.

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Liturgical Animals (1)

monksinChoir1The reality of mimetic desire guarantees that we will engage in liturgical activity. What kind of liturgical activity and for what end leads to many possibilities. However, since we instinctively react to the desires and intentions of others, we also instinctively move and sing with each other and act together. Since we are mimetic animals, we are also liturgical animals. Much liturgy takes place in churches and temples but liturgy can be done anywhere at any time and it is indeed done all over the place. René Girard’s theory of scapegoating violence places the origins of ritual and liturgy in the spontaneous mob violence against a victim that “solves” a massive social crisis. At first thought, one would think there is nothing liturgical about collective violence; it just happens. But actually collective violence is a very predictable phenomenon that consistently works in a certain way once it gets started. We all know that once the persecutory ball gets rolling it is almost impossible to stop until blood has been spilled. The relatively few instances where the persecutory wave is stopped short of bloodshed also follow a predictable pattern. In essence, the mimetic contagion of a mob has to be redirected into another direction, one less destructive. This is what Jesus did when the Jewish elders were gathered around the woman caught in adultery. This is what Christians do to this day when celebrating the Holy Eucharist. Although I think it likely that sacrificial rituals have their origins in collective violence as Girard suggests, I think that ritual in itself is rooted more deeply in human nature. Since we humans are imitative creatures, we would instinctively coordinate our bodily movements with those of others. This sort of mirroring is instinctive to mothers especially in their interactions with their babies. It is this coordination of movement that would unify a family and then a clan and then a tribe. These coordinated movements would naturally turn into communal dancing and singing. Such coordinated action would naturally move into reenactments of primal collective violence once that occurred, but there is nothing in this instinct for coordinated movement that requires that it move in that direction. This is to say that collective violence and its continuations in sacrifice and institutionalized violence are not of the essence of humanity. There is nothing necessary about it; it’s just something that happens most of the time. What is necessary in the sense of being of the essence of humanity is coordinated movement. Our built-in mimetic desire guarantees that it will happen. There are practical reasons for this trait, among them coordinating movements during hunting expeditions, the way soldiers do military drills to facilitate coordination in battle, and the way football teams synchronize their actions, not to speak of the rituals performed by their fans. Singing together over common work such as gathering fruits and preparing meals might not be as necessary for success as the coordinated movement of hunting parties, but perhaps are as necessary at another level. Maybe nobody dies of boredom but we often feel that we can, and maybe we do in the sense that lack of interest in life isn’t conducive to living a long life. It is singing and dancing together and moving together in other ways that would have given our earliest ancestors an interest in living and it is these activities that spark our interest in life today. Many people today may think they are dismissive of liturgy because they think of stuffy church services or masonic rituals. But the ways we greet people, especially when introducing people to strangers or meeting them, are little rituals that we take so much for granted that we don’t think of them as rituals. When I was young, many people who never darkened the door of a church linked arms in the streets and sang the hymn “We Shall Overcome.” All this is to say that humans are liturgical animals. Gathering with others always has some liturgical overtones in the sense of repeating actions we are used to doing together. Drinking parties tend to follow the same patterns for those groups in the habit of gathering for that purpose. Given this human trait to gather through ritual, it is inevitable that any who wish to gather with others in memory of Jesus would gather liturgically. Liturgy is discussed at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Proceed to Liturgical Animals (2)

Christian Community (5)

guestsNarthex1Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Church without saying something about institutions called churches. I also can’t overlook the unfortunate fact that although the word “church” has six letters in it, for some it is a four-letter word.

A common distinction is made between the visible Church and the invisible Church. The former is made up of people who wear clerical collars and vestments and those who sit or stand or kneel in pews and sing hymns or songs of praise. The latter is made up of those who actually have their hearts and minds conformed to Christ regardless of whether or not they place their bodies in buildings with a cross on it. In such a distinction, the invisible Church is the real Church, although people invested in the visible church (sorry about the pun!) hope that at least some of them are in the real, invisible Church as well. Of course, this invisible church isn’t really invisible. It is perfectly visible to God and it is visible to all people who have eyes to see. In my earlier posts on the subject of Church, I have suggested that the essence of Church is to be aligned with the forgiving love of Christ that brings us to the place of the victim in opposition to the principalities and powers that feast on victims. Acting out the role of Church in this way is quite visible, just as visible the people who sing hymns and preach in buildings that we call churches. Again, we hope there is at least some overlap between the two, but we all know that the two hardly coincide.

The Church is, then, visible in acts of worship and in charitable acts such as ministering to the poor. The disconnect between these two visibilities is a cause of dismay and downright confusion. Some people who are devoted to both might find that the people they worship with and the people they work with in ministry are very different. This problem becomes particularly acute when a “church” openly allies itself with Empire. To this day, there is concern that when the Roman Empire theoretically converted to Christianity, Christianity was actually converted to the Empire. The establishment of what was called “Christendom” tended to institutionalize the violent tactics of Empire. The Inquisition was a particularly notorious example of this. In more recent history, the Nazi government of Germany ordered the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church to expel all members of Jewish descent from leadership positions. Complying with this demand was a betrayal of their own members and of Christ. The Confessing Church which seceded in protest was a remnant of the Body of Christ.

The disunity and discord among Christians is a further cause of scandal to many. That there should be many ecclesiastical bodies with long or sometimes short traditions is not a problem to me. People are different and cultures are different. It is sad, however, that most churches, were founded in protest against the ecclesiastical body they left. Many of the long-standing debates have been resolved and many ecclesiastical bodies work together charitably in matters such as world relief. Many of the divisions, however, smack of emulating the disciples who argued about who is the greatest and/or the slogans in 1 Corinthians: “I am of Apollos!” “I am of Cephas!” Many of the theological debates in the early Christian centuries over the Trinity and the Natures of Christ could have been carried on with less rancor if church leaders had not been so afraid that God would eternally torture anyone who didn’t get the formulas just right. Getting the theology right just isn’t enough when we get the Love of God wrong.

The scandal of Church for so many of us tempts us to chuck it all and try to go it alone. If Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is true, that is simply not possible. We are affected by the desires and intentions of others whether we like it or not. If we set ourselves over against everybody else in defiance, that very defiance makes us totally dependent on the people we are defying. After all, if we aren’t defying people, we aren’t doing much in the way of defying. The deeper problem is that when we make ourselves that dependent on other people, we are easily sucked into the power of persecutory mechanisms when they occur. A lone individual can’t hold out against such a thing.

So there is need to connect with others. This is a point I illustrate in some of the stories I’ve written, most particularly in Merendael’s Gift. The protagonist can’t stand up to social pressures of the kids he hangs out with until he allies himself with other children who band together to befriend this strange visitor from another planet. This group becomes an analogy for the Church as the Body of Christ. In real life, we have to be alert to the people who are sincerely and humbly entering the place of the Victim. (I say “humbly” because some people pridefully use “victimhood” to manipulate others.) We can only hope that some of these people actually are in a church in the ecclesiastical sense.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the rivalry and sacrificial violence it can lead to suggests that they greatest division among Christians is along the lines of a theology and practice that is sacrificial on the one hand and one that is grounded in Jesus the Forgiving Victim on the other. Girard’s theory shows us how easily followers of Jesus’ Kingdom could easily slide back into remnants of the primitive sacred. The Body of Christ looks like the Body of Christ when it is embodied by people who stand up to the persecutory mechanism whenever it occurs. Unfortunately, any of us can easily fall into embodying instead the Satan who is the Accuser. That is to say, this schism between sacrificial and forgiving members can split right down the middle our own selves. This is why we need to strengthen ourselves with the practices of Church such as worship and interior prayer and mutual encouragement.

On Gathering with Those who Keep Oil in their Lamps

eucharist1Like many parables, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is obvious and yet puzzling in some respects. The notion of forfeiting eternal life for failing to be prepared at a certain level is oppressive, but we can lift this degree of oppression by noting that the Kingdom of God is something we are supposed to be living NOW, in this life. This is what we are to be prepared for. If we are prepared NOW for the kingdom, entering more deeply into the Kingdom when we die will take care of itself.

It is worth noting that just before this parable, Jesus has thrown out the parable of the household where the wicked servant beats his fellow servants and gets drunk with the drunkards. Here we have an image of the violence humanity commits and suffers for not being alert to God’s Kingdom. Ironically, the wicked servant thinks the Master is delayed when the Master is already there in the servants he is beating. In contrast, the Foolish Maidens do not commit violence, but they fail to do anything that would stand up to violence such as that of the wicked servant.

I also think it significant that the parable is about two groups of maidens rather than just two maidens. As one who uses the thought of René Girard as a tool for interpreting scripture, I am inclined to interpret this parable in turns of contrasting human groups, each governed by a collective desire they share within that group. The wise maidens who have extra oil for their lamps are a community whose members encourage one another so as to keep their lamps burning. When they care about the Bridegroom and those the Bridegroom identifies with, their lamps burn yet more. I know how valuable it is to live in a community of men who all encourage me to remain ardent in prayer and kindness to those who come here, which makes it easier for me to encourage them in turn. The Foolish Maidens are quite the opposite. Here is a community, if one even wants to call it that, where the members encourage each other to remain apathetic and so strengthen apathy among themselves. Apathy is just as contagious as ardor, if not more so. When the people around us act (or fail to act) out of apathy, our own lamps are sure to burn lower and lower and eventually go out.

When the Wise Maidens say there is not enough oil to share when the Bridegroom comes, they are wrong in one respect. The strengthening of ardor among themselves could easily catch the foolish Maidens into its burning. The problem is that it is very difficult to extricate oneself from a group whose process has a strong grip on us and it is even much more difficult yet to change a whole group around all at once. Not even with the best will in the world could the Wise Maidens have enough oil burning to do that. The Foolish Maidens are like the drunkards in the previous parable who let the wicked servant beat the other servants and then drink with him. The Wise Maidens have the strength to stand up to the violence and witness to a nonviolent way of living. The Foolish Maidens may not be violent themselves, but they will be swept away by violence when it comes. We really do have to pay attention to the company we keep and how we keep it. The Wise Maidens do need to find ways to reach out to their Foolish sisters without getting caught in their apathy.

Finding themselves flatfooted when they realize the Bridegroom is here, the Foolish Maidens compound their foolishness by running off to the store in the middle of the night. With some stores open 24/7 these days, this act isn’t quite as irrational now as it was then but it is irrational enough. What they are doing is running away from the Maidens who have their lamps lit and away from the Bridegroom. They would have better off to stay with the Wise Maidens and the Bridegroom. It may have been humiliating to have empty unlit lamps but the Bridegroom is the one who lights the lamps of those who hold them out. They also would have been in a position to start catching the ardor of the Wise Maidens. By running off, they get plenty of oil but they have missed the chance to encounter the Bridegroom and those the Bridegroom identifies with. All of this is a perfect image of the kind of crowd panic in reaction to a problem that ensures that it only gets worse.The foolish maidens will almost certainly just let the oil run out all over again.

As with the wicked servant who thought the Master was delayed, the Maidens think the Bridegroom is delayed. The truth is that the Bridegroom is always already HERE. We can turn to the Bridegroom in love at any time and we can respond to the least of those the Bridegroom identifies with at any time they show up. THIS is what we have to be alert to and prepared for. There is lasting damage to being unprepared through apathy for the Bridegroom’s presence. I’m sure all of us can think of opportunities that we squandered and there is now no way to go back and make them good. The Forgiving Victim will still redeem all of us, but the diminishment and needless pain we have allowed always remains. Let these memories that we regret motivate us to stay close to the Bridegroom who lights our lamps in the company of others who will encourage us to keep our lamps lit.