Zeitgeist Voices Figure it Out

Zeitgeist Voices Figure it Out

Fiona Apple really doesn’t care what you think of her. Well, that’s the impression I get when I consider the way she handled her early stardom, back in 1996, and the fact she’s only put out four albums since then. Her most recent, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, released this past spring, seems as fresh as her first, penned when she was 17, 18 and 19. Back then, she seemed like a unicorn of sorts, bold, but vulnerable, classically trained, but willing to step out and away from tradition. And she could scat. She could jazz it up and still sound like the newest, coolest woman on the block. Actually, not just new — beautifully strange.

“Under the Table”

So when I heard her song on the radio, I didn’t even know it was Fiona Apple, but I did think it was something new, fresh, and influenced by Fiona Apple. Why did the chords, the bridges, the runs hit me that way? Primarily because Gen Z and Millennial singers, especially the women, love to scat. They love to run words into one another like there’s too much in their heads in need of quick release, and far too little time to do so. Perhaps. Maybe. And then they chill. And then they scat again. Chill. Scat. They do Ella, and then Nick Drake it. Bebop to Hip Hop and somewhere altogether different.

“Figure it Out”

Listening to a local alternative radio station, Blu DeTiger caught my ear, sounding like the current manifestation of the Zeitgeist in several ways. All of 21, she scats too, vocally and with her bass, and her lyrics throw a mix at my ears of fatalism, damage, stoicism and cool. It’s impossibly understated. Humbly confident. Blu “made the scene” as a DJ first, played bass, OTJ, “graduated” to Tik Tok, and now she’s full-fledged. I think she and Fiona should make records together. Pass the torch!

Concert Announcement for EISMA

Concert Announcement for EISMA

A friend whispered this, virtually, in my ear:


I want to invite you to a live streaming concert slash fundraiser that  I am organizing and playing in.  It is for EISMA (Evanston in-School Music Association).  They are a really fantastic local non-profit that brings professional live music concerts to kids in the Evanston schools – two groups a year since 1971.  I have been on their board for a year  and am impressed with how much they do on a very small budget. 
I organized this fundraiser to bring awareness to their mission and track record as well as to raise funds.
I hope you can buy a ticket for the fundraiser, and if you are able, please donate a bit more to this group that does so much.
I feel lucky to have secured some of Chicagolands’ best  musicians for the concert.  
The fact is, we are all hanging out at home now – this concert would not have happened in normal times – everyone would have been busy rehearsing and performing and on tour.  So that has been fun for me to put this together and play with old and new friends that are really great musicians.
We are featuring a beautiful and quite striking string quartet by Stacy Garrop  – which is based on medieval illuminated manuscripts (really intense and gorgeous – here is a link to an earlier performance by the Avalon Quartet:  String Quartet No 4 ‘Illuminations’ ,  plus music of  Samuel Coleridge Taylor (maybe you haven’t heard of him – a mixed race composer from Victorian England, sounds a bit like Dvorak – a good piece) , Michael del Aguila, Beethoven and Brahms.
A Belated Update on This Life

A Belated Update on This Life

Some well-deserved recognition for a must-read book:

Professor Martin Hägglund wins the prestigious René Wellek Prize

Martin Hägglund’s This Life has been awarded the René Wellek Prize for the best book in the field by the American Comparative Literature Association. The Wellek Prize is generally considered to be the most prestigious award in comparative literature. Past winners include Umberto Eco and Edward Said. In their prize motivation, the awards committee offered high praise for This Life:

Before and After

Before and After

The Scream, by Edvard Much. 1893

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream. — Edvard Munch (1892)

The past before us
Is the past we all share now

Twice past
Twice blessed

Roaming through the ages
When we jammed into rooms
Bars houses apartments

Together breathing the same air
Breathing the same context in time

An earlier landscape internalized
For physical connections we took for granted
For fun for chances to spar and joust
In person together

Together but apart in our mind’s eye
Because we could be that way
That aloof that cool
But still there

Meant pre-separation

Meant we panicked about different things

To say the least because we could
Say the least and get away with it

The air we breathe
The air we pass on to others

Is existential now
     We are each other’s crisis

The Discomfort of Reading

The Discomfort of Reading

The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 2018. (Translated by Michele Hutchison, 2020.)

It’s a big deal to win The International Booker Prize. It’s a much bigger deal, it seems to me, to do so before you’re 30. Still bigger when the book itself defies convention, adds another step on the ladder of literature, makes us think differently about farms, families, children and their inner worlds, abuse, and the ways we try to cope with this.

They poeticize. They poeticize grief and internalize/externalize it through metaphor. But those metaphors touch everything around them, so the grief never really leaves. They aren’t bridges to unrelated abstractions, existing in some Platonic World of Forms. They aren’t bridges of escape. They — the poetry, the metaphors — circle around them like the wind across the farm, carrying with it the smells they love and hate and accept as their only world, good, bad, indifferent. They don’t hide it or spray it all with perfume. They don’t commodify it through platitudes. It’s real, and it’s not. It’s fiction, and it’s not.

Growing up absurd. Growing up, ten, eleven, twelve . . .

The risk for the reader, with a book this linguistically wondrous, is to fall so entirely under the spell of the language, its melancholy beauty, its preternatural wisdom, even its humor, that we forget what the author is trying to say, that what has happened on this farm, in the Netherlands, to a family, to children, can not be obliterated. Because literature doesn’t do that. It can’t really make something not be what it is, and it’s not there to give us comfort, necessarily.

Literature (mostly) says this about its characters: I was here, in this life. This is what happened to me. This is part of who I am and why.

They poeticize, and this is a gift to readers, though not everyone deserves this gift. To be harsh, not everyone does. Ironically, the avoidance of being harsh is one of the underlying rationales for certain kinds of poetry, at least subconsciously, because if a person like the author, who may or may not have experienced what happened in the story, in this fictional world, at least not exactly as portrayed . . . if that person removed the lyricism, the humor, the metaphors, and just told us straight up, “This is what happened to me!” we might not listen, we might just turn away, appalled. We might just insult them, or mock them, or cast doubt on that experience — thus adding more layers to the pain-clothes they already wear. This coat of pain. Or pain-coats they imagine their characters must wear.

For humans capable of true feeling, of true empathy, of walking step by step with others, this is nearly the same thing. For those rare Olympians of the Heart, it is.




Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Oedipus at Colonus. By Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. 1788

July 2, 2020

This brings us to Aristotle’s Poetics, which Critchley gives an even closer reading than he gave to The Republic. And why not? It’s shorter, more succinct and more germane. He begins by unpacking that troublesome concept, “catharsis.” Is it life-changing or purgative or disruptive or like menstruation? Many philosophers claim Aristotle uses it to argue directly with Plato about the value of tragic poetry. Critchley thinks it’s just a description of what people feel when they watch a tragedy, then return home and go on with their lives unchanged. (Much the way people now read murder mysteries.) Which actually is a response to Plato. Tragedy is not disruptive and dangerous, but speaks to normal parts of human nature. Aristotle is an observant naturalist, unlike moralistic Plato.

Critchley works his way through the famous concepts: hamartia, unity, dramatic action, fear and pity, the value of poetry over history (history is “a bloody archive of particulars” that can be used for tragedy). Euripides is Critchley’s favorite but dismissed by Aristotle as “the most tragic”—not actual praise. (Aristophanes in The Frogs left Euripides in Hades because he had made tragedy “democratic.” He saved Aeschylus instead. Aristotle disliked democracy almost as much as Plato did.)

Aristotle’s rules about characters, especially women and slaves, set him at odds with Euripides. But Euripides is even stranger than I knew. The endings of his Orestes and Helen sound as bloody as Jacobean tragedies—with the weird plot twist in both that the real Helen wasn’t taken to Troy, but only a simulacrum of her. Critchley claims Euripides uses deus ex machina as a deliberate mockery of the concept of neat, clean endings admired by Aristotle and practiced by Sophocles. He gives many examples of Euripides parodying Aeschylus and Greek myths with bits of realism and put-down lines. He enjoyed screwing around with the genre.

But he wasn’t alone in his extremism. Elektra by Sophocles stars the biggest screamer in Greek tragedy, even louder than Cassandra. Perhaps Aeschylus and Sophocles both wrote wild, mixed genre plays that are now lost? Aristotle next weighs tragedy against epic and decides tragedy is better, chiefly because it’s more concentrated.

Aristotle is more generous to poetry than Plato was, but Critchley complicates this fact by arguing that he could be generous since philosopy had won. His calm, reasonable descriptions can be smug and condescending, Critchley claims. Well, maybe. But Poetics is never outright wrong or crazy the way Republic can be. And Aristotle’s inclusion of facts and examples is useful to the modern reader, even when he avoids examples that are exceptions to his rules. We may disagree with Aristotle’s answers, but he asks good questions.

July 3, 2020

Critchley moves on to a discussion of the missing second book of Poetics, which is about comedy. Ecco made this text the MacGuffin of his Name of the Rose, but it turns out the book isn’t entirely missing. A Byzantine manuscript, Tractatus Coislineanus, summarizes the missing book. A scholar has recreated it and Critchley finds the recreation convincing, although his summary doesn’t sound very interesting. Nevertheless, Critchley uses it to return to catharsis, arguing for a more moderate, less radical effect on the audience in the eyes of Aristotle, mildly homeopathic, like piling on blankets to cure a fever. Critchley prefers the confusion and disruption produced by Euripides, which he explores with a discussion of The Frogs. Aeschylus is chosen over Euripides in a contest for who should be brought back from Hades to save Athens from itself. Aristophanes finds Euripides too realistic, too “democratic.” Critchley speaks of Cloud Cuckooland in The Birds and the role of Aristophanes in The Symposium (he falls asleep during Socrates’ big speech about the similarities of tragedy and comedy).

Critchley closes with a reading of Oedipus, not a close reading, but a lyric reading that draws in the ideas he discussed earlier. There are interesting observations—acting and being acted upon meld against the background of ideology; the role of grief and funerals in political movements—but it’s surprisingly dry, almost glib, compared to what preceded it. Critchley clearly saw this, because he now gives the real ending. He once interviewed Isabelle Huppert at BAM after a production called Phaedra(s). He talked around the ideas at work in Euripides, Racine and others. She was polite and intelligent, but then she impatiently said, “What theater is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness. That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas. Good ideas, maybe. But just ideas.” This, with a few words from Anne Carson about tragedy as a furnace glimpsed in the dark, gives him the ending he needs, where great theater leaves us seemingly blinded but able to see further than before.

Here’s a timeline I drew up to help me remember where I am in these pages. (Placing famous works in time somehow makes them more real to me.)

480 BC Salamis

472 BC The Persians by Aeschylus

432 BC Declaration of Peloponnesian War

429 BC Oedipus the King by Sophocles

415 BC The Trojan Women by Euripides

413 BC Athenian defeat at Syracuse

405 BC The Frogs by Aristophanes

404 BC Athens defeated in second war

399 BC Trial and death of Socrates

380 BC The Republic

336 BC Alexander comes to the throne

335 BC The Poetics

323 BC Death of Alexander

Dates before Christ run backwards, so I often feel disoriented. But it’s startling to see that the golden age of Greece lasted 150 years, which seems both too short and too long. Then I remember that the most vital time of American history also ran 150 years, from 1800 to 1950. Maybe we are as doomed as Athens.

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

School of Athens
School of Athens, by Raphael. 1509-1511

June 29, 2020

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us by Simon Critchley. A lean, concentrated, engaging, exasperating look at Greek tragedy and “tragedy’s philosophy.” It is so lean that it feels like a fatter, more conventional book that’s been cooked down into a series of zen koans. I can read only so much at a time, usually in the morning, before it turns opaque and incomprehensible. But in this age of plague, a tyrant and the failure of democracy, a visit to ancient Athens feels right.

Here are a few of the ideas from the book:

Tragedy was performed not for individuals but for the city, a civic event more akin to a trial than to private reverie or religious ritual. Aristotle left this side out of his Poetics.

Gorgias the sophist wrote: “Tragedy . . . creates a deception in which the deceiver is more honest than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.” Which is similar to Picasso’s “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

Critchley draws heavily on Hegel’s argument that tragedy is about the conflict between two rights, best illustrated by Antigone. (I first encountered this in Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, a book Critchley never mentions but affects my reading here.) He sets his progressives—Hegel, Marx—against his regressives—Nietzsche, Heidigger—but his strongest words come from Bernard Williams who said in Shame and Necessity that our current ethical condition is not so different from that of the Greeks. We all suffer from moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity. Critchley argues that it’s wrong to see the Greeks as too other, too exotic.

The hero in Greek tragedy is not a solution to the problem: he is the problem. A regular refrain in the plays is “What am I to do? How are we to choose?” The plays are about the disruption of meaning. Justice is conflict. Tragedy is a dialectical mode of experience. Meaning isn’t unified but polytheistic, like Greek religion.

Some of the plays I knowThe Orestia, Oedipus, Philoctetes, The Trojan Women—others I don’t—Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens. I wish he said more about the plays themselves. They are stepping stones through this existential thicket. Critchley makes much of the fact these are war plays, written at a time of war, and that they weren’t timeless but of “the tragic moment.” A xenophobic, sexist society watched plays that featured foreigners and women.

Demokratia is related to theatrokratia, “a theater state” like Geertz’s Bali. I don’t understand what this means yet but I am intrigued. This book, like Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro, is fueled by the triumph of Trump and the failure of democracy.

June 30, 2020

Critchley points out that although we have the complete texts of 31 plays, philosophers only talk about two, Oedipus and Antigone. I’d add the Orestia, but the point is taken. A sharp criticism of the concept of moral psychology—that ethics is part of human psychology—leads to the idea that tragedy disrupts such a connection. But a discussion of Schelling on Spinoza and Kant takes these ideas into the weeds where I couldn’t follow. When Critchley says, “We should get back to theater,” I was overjoyed—but he gives few specifics.

The section on sophistry and Gorgias takes me to more solid ground. In the great contest between tragedy and philosophy, Critchley adds a third force, the sophists. Plato dismissed them as wordplaying relativists, but Critchley takes them more seriously. They were not simply fancy talkers in it for the money, but serious thinkers arriving at different truths. Critchley compares them to Beckett; I was reminded of comic novelists like Sterne and Gogol. Their most effective thinker, Gorgias, survives as the subject of Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in a few fragments, and in commentary by Sextus Empiricus. His most famous pieces are a defense of Helen and a look at non-being. His clever arguments take us closer to the law courts of Athens, but there’s forensic style in Plato, too, despite his claim he is more interested in truth than cleverness.

So how does sophistry connect to tragedy? The reversals of Euripides in Trojan Women and elsewhere drew on the reversals of Gorgias and others, where the losers are presented as winners, etc. Wordplay and persuasion are tried in Philoctetes, but only Herakles, the deus ex machina, can change the archer’s mind. However, at the end of Trojan Women, Helen defends herself against a death sentence with a lawyerly speech denying her responsibility for the war. Hecuba answers the speech point by point, but Helen still wins.

July 1, 2020

We see the sophists from Plato’s point of view in his dialogues, including Phaedrus and Gorgias. The first is about love and rhetoric, defining the love of philosophy. Critchley calls it a success, although his description suggests the odds are stacked—but they are always stacked in Plato’s dialogues. Gorgias promises to be an argument with the chief sophist, but Gorgias himself barely appears. The antagonist is Callicles, a cynic who speaks an entirely different language. Socrates is a total pain here, talking chiefly to himself and finally admitting he will win in the afterlife. (Philosophy is better than sophistry only in the eyes of the gods: it is “divine” while sophistry is merely human.)

Now we enter The Republic, where Plato launches his full-scale attack against tragedy. It appears to be set in 410 BCE and was written in 380 BCE. (Socrates was put to death in 399 BCE—one of the few dates from the ancient world that I can remember.)

Critchley’s account is clear and readable, constructed around Socrates’ attack on Homer and the tragic poets, first in Book 3, where his emphasis is on education, then in Book 10 where he returns to the subject as a kind of epilogue. Ironies abound. This is a criticism of drama that takes the form of drama itself. Tales of bad behavior by gods need to be deleted as “untrue,” yet truth here means whatever is useful in this ideal city state. “Being dead is not such a terrible thing” is a useful truth for future warriors. Mimesis, the imitation of reality, is bad because it introduces distracting superficiality as well as the irrational. Lamentation makes for exciting tragedies but is bad in real life. Emotional excess must be regulated.

Along the way Socrates deals with the four possible forms of government: timocracy (honor), oligarchy (money), democracy, and tyranny. Democracy looks appealing but is dangerous because it can lead to tyranny. He addresses “the good” in Book VI, which is where we get the parable of the cave, that favorite image of Gallatin students. But the dialogue builds to the exclusion of the tragic poets. One cant help suspecting this is as much about turf war between the philosophers and poets as it is about truth.

Socrates hates tragedy because it gives pleasure. Tragedy is bad because it turns men into women, making them suffer emotionally and cry. Emotions that should be repressed are released, which corrodes democracy and enables the rise of tyrants. (But we’ve seen here that coldness leads to the rise of men like Trump and Bolsonaro.) Comedy is bad, too, because jokes that should be told in private are now made public. After expelling the poets, Socrates closes with his own weird, longwinded fairy tale about Er, a man who returns from the afterlife with a detailed account of what happens to good people and bad people after they die.

Critchley doesn’t defend any of this—how could he?—or claim that it’s ironic, but leaves it as a mysterious puzzle. Indicating he was utterly serious, Plato expanded his view of the afterlife twenty years later with another dialogue, Timaeus.

— Christopher Bram.


Copyright© 2020, by Chistopher Bram. All Rights Reserved.

Songs for Chasms, Saints and Sinners

Songs for Chasms, Saints and Sinners

Sleeping Venus
Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione and/or Titian. 1510

There is always a gap, a canyon, an endless space between what we want and what we attain, and that’s by evolutionary design. It also can make for great poetry, literature, music, and art. Deathless prose. Immortal landscapes. Notes that reach stars and permeate them. It’s at the heart of metaphor, perhaps its very cause. Ruptures, craters, schisms and riffs are what keep us at it, relentlessly charging ahead, with the biological imperative to pass on our genes to the next and the next. We’ve been doing this for at least 3.5 billion years. Perhaps as long as 4.5 billion.

The object of our love, desire, and lust compels us to reproduce, re-enact the Grand Play of plays. This spins out through time and space, on singular and plural plains of Being. Spins out. Smashes against. Rising and falling, again and again, until we breathe our last.

Look around. Think about what you have. All you have. And think how often you ignore it once you get it. Think about how its former centrality, its utter necessity, obsessed you, drove you nearly mad. But now you couldn’t . . . care . . . less!

The best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi.

— Michel Foucault

Our mind creates bridges of desire, then torches them once we cross. And if we live long enough, it recreates that desire as echo, as memory of memories, with new colors, new sounds and smells and feelings that we impose. Layers of illusions that double those bridges. Re-tracings of pathways we never actually took. Tracking back over ground and haunted words that never existed. Everyone is a poet, an artist, a dreamer of metaphors to some extent.

The role of biology in this doesn’t diminish our creative bursts, our heart-paintings, our love-chants. It grounds them in permanence so they can be fleeting, forever. Next to the flow of life from star to star, this ground is our greatest gift.