Five Simple Ways to Lift Your Spirits

This weekend we returned to Standard Time—or, as I like to call it, Darkness Savings Time. This is usually a week where I can feel kind of meh, but I have made efforts to get on an earlier schedule, which helps, not to mention a daily dose of Vitamin D. I have some other simple actions that I often take to get myself out of a funk. I thought I’d share them with you. It’s good to keep a list like this handy, so that when the doldrums come you’re not sitting around waiting for the flash of inspiration that never comes. So, here are five simple things you can do to pull yourself out of a funk.

1. Get a hair cut, or shave.  I don’t shave every day; instead, I keep my beard and the hair on my head at about the same length. Believe it or not, I use clippers without any guard. Sometimes I let this go a little too long, and then on a day when I’m feeling run down, I look in the mirror and notice that I look like a wooly mammoth, which is unbecoming of anyone professing to belong to the human race. I get out my clippers, my jaw line becomes discernible once again, and usually I’m in a better mood. Total time investment: maybe ten minutes.

Those who are recently shorn often look and feel younger, thinner, and more vigorous than their bushy counterparts. What’s more, I find it to be a better solution than dressing up, which can be uncomfortable. No matter how skinny I get, there is always a point on my hip bones where the trousers and the belt start to dig in, so taking care of my hair—one of the remaining unhappy elements of the human body that evolution has yet to take care of—is often a better solution to get me feeling better about myself again.

2. Clean your house.  I came home from work yesterday, took one look at the clutter that I allowed to build up over the past few weeks, and heaved a sigh of disgust. Sometimes life gets crazy and our homes become, more or less, a kind of pit stop. We throw things here and there until the clutter mounts up to poetic proportions. This makes our living spaces unlivable, so that when we are there we don’t have the hideaway from the rest of the world that we need. As with any overwhelming task, it helps to break it down. Focus on one area that you really need to use with a sense of peace. Need to get some reading or writing done? Concentrate on your den or office. Wish you could cook a big meal for friends? Focus on the kitchen and dining room.

I actually have a studio apartment, which changes the game completely, but makes the matter much more crucial. There is no such thing as picking up a mess and simply moving it to another room—one of my favorite techniques of yore. My problem du jour is the clothing pile from Hell.  Of course, instead of addressing this yesterday, I took a nap. I needed it. And no one sees my apartment anyway. But when it is clean, I actually get a sense of comfort from being there.

3. Take a long walk. I was tempted to make running an option here, since, as I have discussed before, its benefits are manifold, but walks have their own specific up-sides. I am thinking, in particular, of their ability to reveal heretofore unseen corners of the world to the observer.  The Fall is a really good time for this. Take the opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures that nature offers, like John Adams did in the last episode of the HBO series about him. Yesterday I was walking along Pine St. in Philadelphia when I found a tree whose leaves had turned to colors of yellow and red so that it looked like the whole thing was ablaze. Against the evergreen shutters of the nearest house, it was a gorgeous site. I should have taken a picture.

These are the kinds of things you see on a walk that you often don’t see on the drive home from work, either because you’re tired or you have to pee or whatever. I have discovered new restaurants this way, too. One important thing: Walk slow. This is not exercise; it is not a task. It is leisure, and that’s ok. Not every important thing in life has to do with making money or taking care of your family. Your own self is important too. So, leave the house, and don’t tell anyone where you’re going.

4. Call an old friend. Forget social media. Pick up the telephone, or get on Skype, and listen to the sound of an old friend’s voice. Tell him your problems, your plans, your fears, your frustrations.  We only have so many true friends in life, and these days we tend to be spread out all over the place. There are people that I don’t speak to for months or years at a time, but when we get going again, it’s like we never missed a beat. Those kinds of friendships are great, and necessary.

It’s easy to get distracted by the people around us, but often these are not our friends but rather people who want something from us and are massaging us in an effort to get it. It’s good to be nice to acquaintances, but it’s important to know that they are not our friends. Stick to your most reliable five friends, and don’t be afraid to call them when you need to. If they are good friends, they will tell you when you are full of crap, when you are lying to yourself, when you aren’t being realistic, and when you are not giving yourself enough credit.

I remember getting ready for a recital a few years ago and complaining to a friend that it wasn’t going well, that I had no business playing in public, that I should do something else for a living, etc. With each finished beer my autobiographical commentary got worse. Then the recital came. He pulled me aside afterwards and said, “Now listen, everything you said was absolutely untrue.” I needed to hear this, and coming from someone who studied with one of the world’s best percussionists, it was encouraging. I needed to hear that. Stay in touch with these people, because chances are that many people in your immediate vicinity are mere operators.

5. Sing. Music in general is beneficial, even just listening to it. Better than simply listening is actively listening, and better than actively listening is actively making. When I was a kid, I would play the piano for hours after coming home from the windowless prison block that was labelled an intermediate school. Singing in particular is most beneficial because it forces your body to use more oxygen, which gets your brain fired up. I have dragged myself to my voice lesson, thinking that I was too busy, tired, sick—whatever—to go through with this. But on those days I usually leave completely refreshed.

You could sing anything, really—maybe a song by Johnny Cash or Ray Charles. I actually recommend art songs, and before you think this is too snotty for you, hear me (or read me) out. Many of these songs have melodies that anyone can identify with, along with texts that are as sagacious as the Psalms and not half as gory. They speak mainly of love and death—which is to say, of life. Many of them are translated into English. I’ll bet you can find many of them at Look for recordings on YouTube.  I recommend music by Faure, Schubert, Brahms, and Grieg, just for starters. There’s a lot out there.

So you’re not a real singer? Good! Remember the words of H.L. Mencken: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Excellence certainly has its place, but so does recreation. And you just might surprise yourself. You might be better than you realize.  Just don’t try Liebestod the first week.

Well, there you have it, a little arsenal of weapons with which to fight the principalities and powers of gloomdom. More tools to use in the discipline of rejoicing. All the best to you.

On Rejoicing and Other Soulful Assaults on Mercantilism

A few months ago I watched the HBO series on John Adams.  Politics aside, he was a fascinating man, though his wife Abigail (gorgeous name, that) strikes me as an even more compelling character.  Late in life, so the HBO depiction goes, Adams takes a walk through a field with one of his sons and, upon spotting a little flower, overflows with joy.  “Your mother used to say that I don’t take enough delight in the mundane,” he says.  “Rejoice, evermore!”

Rejoice, evermore.  It’s a common refrain in human literature.  Holy books and religious ceremonies are filled with it.  And yet it seems to me that most of the time we consider such an attitude to come from mood.  If I am happy, I will rejoice, and if not, well, to hell with your sunny attitude.  In my old age, though, I’ve come to feel that rejoicing is a matter of mental discipline, more than anything else.  It is a disposition that has been cultivated, not a gift of fate.  Notice the imperative nature of the statement:  rejoice.  No qualifiers there.

It is telling that in Western Christianity two days devoted to rejoicing are reserved for the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.  Morbidity is set aside in favor of lightheartedness.  Rejoice.  Do not be afaid.  Et cetera.  Shut up and quit your complaining, in other words.

Years ago I was in a terrible depression when I called home for Mother’s Day.  After speaking to my own mother she gave the phone to my grandmother, with the instructions that I was not to let on how bad things were.  I was offended.  Such a demand went against all the self-indulgence I had been taught by the new age hippies in charge of the education system I had been fed into.  It seemed to me that honesty was more important than being pleasant.  I now see the wisdom of what was asked of me.  There is no reason to subject someone else to my misery, especially if there is no productive reason to do so.  Unpleasantness perpetuates itself anyway.  We feed our own monsters when we go on about how horrible life is.

Behind the commotion, noise, and mindless entertainment that comprises most of modern life lies a very real misery, I’m afraid.  And yet it is not all in the mind.  We have asked for it, and we have gotten it good and hard.  We deserve it.  Any culture that places so much emphasis on the material world will end up this way.  When I talk about materialism, however, I don’t emphasize the indulgence, which is merely the necessary counterpoint to the real problem:  anxiety and work.  The WASP culture is a nervous one that has little trust in the goodness of life.  We love to complain about greedy corporations that (or should I say “who,” given the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling?) are only too willing to grind the souls of workers into powder behind a cubicle wall, but they get away with this because we let them—because, at some level, the simple life isn’t good enough for us.  Modern technology has increased our productivity astronomically, increasing opportunities for leisure and good health, and we have turned it into an excuse to mechanize society and try to make more money.  But are we really happier than the people who whizzed in street gutters and died of the bubonic plague at age 35? Maybe we are, but we shouldn’t answer too quickly.

The frantic pace of our work creates the demand for mindless entertainment.  As a musician who is engaged in making art music—not pop music—I often wonder if places like the orchestra hall are empty less because of a lack of education and more because beauty is just too much for most people to take.  Who can listen to a symphony by Brahms and then go back to the office building without being tempted to shoot himself?  Instead, we fill our heads with the noise and contention and hatred that resembles the workaday world—reality TV, machine-like computerized music that accompanies tone deaf celebrities, and football, which is increasingly a sport strictly for militarized animals—while most adults live vicariously through their kids because they secretly hate their lives.

What would happen if most people realized that it was their lot in life to enjoy it, that they might have life abundantly?  The anonymous wizards who run the treadmills of modern life would be powerless in the face of popular demand to live life wholesomely and thoughtfully.  I don’t think I’m dreaming of the impossible here.  It is because we think that a quieter life is impossible that it never happens.  Our Waspy anxiety says, “I will enjoy life—read books, go to the symphony, smell the roses—when I accomplish x, y, or z.”  It’s also an adolescent insecurity.  “I want to be making 75k by the time I’m 25.”  Etc.

Maybe some of you think I’m just smug, but I know the price of leisure.  For years I have chosen a lower income and a lower standard of living in exchange for enough mental space to cultivate an existence that is at least somewhat fit for higher thinking and contemplation.  Some people think I’m lazy, but they can go to hell:  I would never jump into the hamster wheels that make them such boring dinner mates.

Do-gooders are often the worst when it comes to all this.  “How dare you be so happy when so much is wrong with the world?”  Well, for starters, I can’t control much of it.  I can only influence my own little world.  And what if the dollar collapses tomorrow?  Or what if the nut jobs who say the world will end on May 21 are right?  All the more reason to rejoice.  The measurable and the tangible are not the real stuff, the essence of life.  The things that really matter are hard to describe with any satisfaction.  But we’ll never even discover them if we’re always counting beans, or fighting “Tara-ists,” as George Bush calls them, or trying to get our little tyke into Harvard.  I guess it all goes back to that whole foolishness of the wise and wisdom of the foolish business.

So just call me a jackass.  I’m content with what’s right in front of me.

Rejoice evermore.

Must-Read Books of 2010

“Do you have a soulmate?” the shrink asked Will Hunting.  A soulmate, someone who challenges you.  “Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke…” replied the precious brat.

“That’s great; they’re all dead.”

“Not to me they’re not.”

This is one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting. Both characters have a point.  The written word can be inflexible, and it lacks the dialectic that is so crucial to learning in many situations.  On the other hand, even if a book is a thousand years old or more, it is still alive.  The author might well have something to say to us today.  Given our poor track record for following the good advice of scribes, it isn’t difficult to find an old book that’s useful today.  This is one of the reasons why reading is as important to me as food, clothing, and water.  If I don’t frequently sit down and soak in the wisdom of great writers, I feel like I forgot to brush my teeth.  It is good to have such enhancing activities; they help us more gracefully to wend through the mysterious space between angels and animals that Man occupies.

Every January, I like to share a list of the best books of the past year—books that I’ve read.  Listening to someone talk about the books they’ve read can be annoying, but please be assured that I realize most people couldn’t care less how much I’ve read, and that’s largely how it should be.  It’s not about me; it’s about the books and my desire to share great ideas with other people.  For other readers, this is an excellent way to maximize effort.  No one wants to read a bad book, so recommendations are key.  I have left out a lot of books that are very deserving of mention.  Perhaps others can speak on their behalf.  I will stick to these:


Allan Bloom:  The Closing of the American Mind

When this book was published in the 1980’s it was alternately praised and lambasted as another conservative prophecy of doom.  Any close reading of Bloom’s work, however shows that this reaction was hasty if not illiterate.  Bloom, for instance, laments the collapse of the American family but adds that he isn’t necessarily calling for a return to the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver bliss.  Bloom, in fact, defies categorization.  This is because he is a thinker and a man of the arts.  He is, in a word, human.

Bloom is most famous for his critique of the modern university, which a friend of mine quite accurately says is a monastery gone bad; but to me some of his most striking observations have to do with relationships.  He scratches his head at the cold nature of romance in the youth of the 1980’s:  after years as lovers, two students would part ways with a handshake, and Bloom would be rendered speechless.  In this context the author, who was apparently no sexual prude, sharpens his knives for the modern hookup culture, which he says ruins the aura of real love.

Of particular interest to me is Bloom’s critique of rock music, which he considers to be decadent.  Good music should be an integrating force and not a fragmenting one.  “To Plato and Nietzsche,” he writes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.  Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.  A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.”

Bloom’s volume is a dense one, and I would only be doing violence to it to try to say too much more than I already have, since every word he writes is important.  He might well sound like a noisy gong to most modern readers because he will prove impossible to pigeonhole into some ridiculous worldview or cause.  Bloom’s argument is not that we need to be more conservative or more liberal, or more or less religious, or even necessarily more decorated with degrees.  I think what he really wanted was a fuller realization of the potential of humanity.  He was, incidentally, an advocate of the Great Books Program, and so I dedicate this post to his memory.


Bertrand Russell:  The Problems of Philosophy

One of the things that all the warring world views of humanity have in common is that their practitioners think their system can solve all the world’s problems.  If only everyone would listen to what So-and-So says, there would be peace on earth, a chicken in every pot, a case of beer in every fridge, and five computers in every home.  The best of the So-and-Sos, of course, are cautious of such naivete.  The problem is that usually it’s some follower of the So-and-So that implements the realization of the philosophy, and these people are usually wearing blinders.

This arrogance, it seems to me, comes from a failure to understand the limits of human reason, and that, to me, is the most important contribution of this work of Lord Bertrand Russell.  He begins his work with a discussion of appearance and reality, using a table as an example.  We can see a table, and touch it, but does the table exist outside our ability to perceive it?  In other words, does it have an existence of its own?  This eventually leads to a discussion about Idealism, which holds that reality owes its existence to human thought, a notion that Russell rejects.

Nonetheless, Russell is no Randian Objectivist and courageously faces the limits of ratiocination, the process of human reasoning.  Some questions, for instance, can only be solved through inductive reasoning, as indeed many scientific experiments are conducted.  The more an experiment is repeated successfully, the more likely it is that the conclusions are true.  This kind of reasoning is imperfect but is often as close as we can get.

Somewhat different from inductive reasoning is a priori reasoning and general principles.  2+2=4 is an example of a priori reasoning; even if one doesn’t know the answer to this equation when he starts, he usually has the tools and the knowledge of general principles to come to the right conclusion.  This is a sturdy form of reasoning, as long as one’s premises are correct, but in many areas of human thinking it is impossible to know this for sure.  Because of this, Russell rejects the use of philosophical techniques for fields such as theology.

After so much talk of the limits of philosophy, one might wonder, “What’s the use?”  We modern men in particular like to have definite answers to everything; we are fundamentalists even in matters of whether or not the tree makes a noise in the forest if there is no one there to hear it fall.  Russell, however, sees much of the value of philosophy coming precisely from its uncertainty.  He says, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Philosophy, in other words, makes us more thoughtful.


Jeffrey Tucker:  Bourbon for Breakfast

I have already reviewed this book here.


Jean Renoir:  My Father

The well-known filmmaker Jean Renoir has written a riveting account of the life of his father, the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir.  As a musician, I’m fascinated with visual artists precisely because they use entirely different faculties than I use.  Oddly enough, though, what sticks with me are Renoir’s criticisms of modern life.  He was old enough to remember simpler, pre-industrial times, and he despised the centrally planned Paris that was poured with concrete.  Renoir in general hated modern life—the ugliness, the pace, the utilitarianism.

A conscientious capitalist who loves beauty is compelled to pause when reading a book like this to re-examine his ethical beliefs.  We would be fools to pretend there hasn’t been a downside to industrialism.  One could argue, for instance, that the Southern black slaves were being freed just as the Northern white servants were about to be imprisoned:  Many people feel stuck as a cog in the technological wheel, cubicle dwellers who are paid to leave their creativity and ingenuity at home.  And without an agrarian culture, one’s options are limited.  A landed man is a free man; a man in an apartment with rent and utilities to pay is on rather a tight leash.

Why support capitalism, then?  Leaving aside the usual caveat that the modern west is not a free market but rather a partially-free mercantilist one, there are some things to be considered.  Firstly, much of the leisure that gives us the free time to criticize modern life is a direct result of the industrial revolution, as are such things as extended life spans—hardly things to be lamented.  But beyond this, I still choose capitalism, because in its essentialness, capitalism is freedom.  I’m not talking about the capitalism of  the corporatist racket;  I’m talking about the capitalism of free exchange, the mutuality between merchant and customer.  It’s a system that allows everyone to say yes or no.

And it allows those committed to the arts to say yes or no—donors, consumers, and practitioners.  In, for instance, a socialist economy, man is not free to decide how much he will work and how much he will play.  The decision is made for him; he owes his time to the State.  In freedom, he can choose the best possible road, taking into consideration all the variables in front of him; not only those that can be measured, but those that cannot be.  For those who have not heeded the advice of Bertrand Russell, constructive leisure time is not important; they would rather work 60 hours a week to pay for the extra car in the garage.  For others, they want just enough money to survive; to them, living well is broader, deeper, and higher than one’s income level.

No one can deny that the arts have suffered in our times.  But fundamentally this is not a crisis of being helpless in the face ineluctable historical or economic forces; rather, it is a crisis of choice.  Most of us have chosen money, forgetting that man cannot live on bread alone.  Shame on us.

One final thought on Renoir:  There seems to be no genius where there is no suffering.  Renoir was surprisingly sane for a creative person.  (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m a crazy person who does his best, at least, to be creative.)  His pain in life was physical, taking the form of arthritis.  There are pictures of him in which the malformation of his hands is obvious.  It’s a great mystery how he was ever able to hold a brush with an organ that had basically devolved into a glorified claw.  It’s beautiful.  It’s inspiring.  It takes away all my excuses.


Seneca:  The Shortness of Life

Seneca (whose full name has something like umpteen words in it) was perhaps the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, who were essentially ancient precursors to the prudent American Puritan.  That’s not all bad; in small doses admonition to responsibility can be a good thing.

Seneca adjures his readers to keep their death always in mind.  Dark, I know, which is why I liked it.  Seneca’s point, though, is to a constructive end; it is not his desire to induce a John Donne-like bout of depression.  All resources are limited, including the space in which our lives exist.  Each of us has an unknown amount of time.  For this reason, we often hear that life is short.  Seneca, on the other hand, says that life is long if you know how to use it.  Seneca would ask each of us, “What are you doing right now, and why?”  We often waste time in our lives on things that we don’t really want to do, on tasks that are not only distasteful, but utter distractions from our real goals.

Putting his advice to use, of course, means learning how to say no.  Leonard Bernstein’s mother once quipped that it was a good thing he wasn’t a woman, because he never learned how to say no.  Bernstein, however, was a genius, and geniuses tend to be able to master superhuman schedules.  Most of us, on the other hand, need to make very careful decisions.  As the world gets more and more antisocial, people seem to become more and more demanding all the same.  We have forsaken affection for expectations, and this is not a good thing.  It can be difficult to cut out the underbrush of one’s schedule, but take courage, and remember your death.  As Boobus Americanus Primus said, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”


G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man

I read a lot of literature about religion, works that I agree with and that I disagree with.  It is a fascinating subject, and an important one.  For much of this work I have turned to an early 20th century Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man is as fresh and as relevant as anything that could be written by Joseph Ratzinger (whose excellent Introduction to Christianity I also read this year), Karen Armstrong, or Richard Dawkins.  (Dawkins tries too hard; it gets old after awhile.)

It is common in Western Christian discourse to tackle The God Question with various kinds of philosophical proofs and theological parsing.  Mystics reject this approach, but so do other more “down-to-earth” thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, as an author of a number of novels, sees The God Question in terms of a history, that is, a story, an adventure.  He says, for instance, that while the idea of a man being damned may be an unattractive one, the idea that man is damnable is quite obviously true, and accounts for mankind’s constant struggles against failure.  Hell is simply a reflection of our own ability to sabotage ourselves.

Against the historical materialism of many of the thinkers of his day, Chesterton applies the notion of immutable human nature to the question of the existence of God.  Why, for instance, did supposedly pre-human animals feel the need to create art in the caves?  What was the purpose of this art?  I’m having a hard time remembering the full argument, and I don’t have the book with me, but if you are interested in philosophy and religion, this is a good book for you.


Peter Ackroyd:  The House of Doctor Dee

I should call this book, “The Token.”  I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I try to do a little every year.  I have a couple of friends that I’ve put in charge of getting me the right fiction books.  One in particular is good at picking out contemporary English authors who show us that not everything written today needs to be a sleazy Danielle Steele novel.

In this book, a young chap inherits an old house owned by his deceased father.  It’s a cute little dwelling, consisting of mismatched parts built at different times.  The house turns out to be haunted by a ghost of a former owner, one Doctor Dee, a sixteenth century practitioner of black magic.  There are many fascinating erudite references in the book to stroke the egos of intellectually vain jackasses like me, but what I remember the most is the shiver that went up my spine in sections of this story.  If ghosts exist, I’m afraid of them.  And even if they don’t, I’m still afraid of them.  Ask me what happened once on Big Round Top in Gettysburg.


Hans-Hermann Hoppe:  Democracy:  The God That Failed

It’s common for a modern American history course to go like this:  Once upon a time, there were these evil men called kings, who used and abused their subjects to their hearts’ content, and the world was dark and dreary with no sense whatsoever of the idea of human dignity.  Then along came America, and they set the whole world free with equal rights and democracy.  The peasants rejoiced, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our government.

This narrative, of course, is largely unquestioned; it is scripture to most people.  Hans-Hermann Hoppe, certainly one of the foremost anarcho-capitalist thinkers of our time, pops this balloon of naivete unapologetically in his book, Democracy:  The God That Failed.

He begins with a careful examination of monarchical government and the several advantages that it held.   A king could not forcibly tax, and he could not forcibly conscript soldiers.  Those mercenaries that modern political scientists like to insult came at a high price; military commanders were therefore rather hesitant to risk their troops’ lives unnecessarily.  Many battles were conceded as soon as one side or the other took the high ground.  Wars were not, for the most part, fought in population centers but out in the fields, away from the citizenry, who considered war to be the irrelevant sandbox fighting of the oligarchy.   In a monarchical system, class divisions were in the forefront of awareness, making the population healthily wary and skeptical of the brainchildren of the royalty.  Kings also had a harder time being looters.  Since they planned to pass their kingdoms on to their posterity, they did everything they could to increase the value of the area through approaches comparatively friendly to businessmen.  And finally, for all the talk about the absolute rule of kings, they were beholden to the natural law.  New measures were expected to be elucidations on natural law.  There was no place for positivism, and where a king stepped out of line, there were powers in place to remove him if necessary.

Hoppe contrasts life under Kings and Queens with life under Congresses and Presidents.  The modern democratic nation-state forcibly taxes—Isn’t it ironic that after rebelling against a tax, the Americans put taxation provisions into their new founding document?—and it has forcibly conscripted soldiers.  Total warfare has resulted from the enemy’s desire to cripple the whole economy, since forcible taxation renders everyone a contributor to the military effort.  Class divisions in the modern nation-state are blurred, though one could argue that during this depression they have begun to make a comeback.  But by and large the fact that any of us can apply for a job with the government makes us forget that there are the rulers and the ruled.  While kings ruled for life and passed their property on to their children, thereby creating an incentive to nurture the land, elected officials only rule for a short time, which creates an incentive to loot.  And while kings were bound by natural law, the modern nation-state maintains that justice is decided by a majority vote, natural law be damned.

Hoppe is not a monarchist and admits that there were problems with monarchies.  Like modern constitutional governments, the royal system decayed at least partly because of its own arrogance:  “Divine right” ceased to be the idea that the king owed his power to God and became the idea that the king could call upon God to justify any of his decisions.  This was the beginning of positivism.  But clearly democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and this is where Hoppe begins his appeal on behalf of what he calls the natural order, which is what many of us call anarcho-capitalism, the system of a common law ethic built on private property rights and the free market–without the existence of a monopoly on violence, otherwise known as government.

Usually I like to list ten books, but this year I just didn’t have ten that I could recommend unreservedly, owing to one factor or another, few of which reflect on the actual quality of the books.  I would like to thank the friends who pointed me in the direction of some of these works.  They know who they are.  Cicero said that if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  In my case it might be appropriate to replace the garden with a microwave, but in any event I’m quite glad to say that my cup runneth over.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

Sometime in the early 1940’s, Bela Bartok emigrated to the United States.  He was broke, and, what is worse, sick.  Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned him to write  a piece, which he composed while lying sick.  The result was his concerto for orchestra, a magnificent piece human ingenuity.  In it is all the angst and hope that one would think a suffering man might have.  Sometimes the worst circumstances in life produce the most amazing and surprising things.  That’s comforting when times are tough.  When times are good, it’s a frightening thought.

Here’s the first movement:

A few words for Richard M. Weaver

Richard Weaver, as regular readers of these pages know, is one of my favorite authors.  It really is too bad that he does not enjoy a wider awareness, but then again Weaver was entirely too thoughtful gain much popularity.  It’s also a shame that there is a neo-con Richard Weaver who was friendly with the Bush Administration.  Maybe we should have a system of retiring certain names the way sports teams retire jerseys.  

I wanted to see last night if there were some kind of Richard Weaver Society, or something like that.  Nothing turned up, but I did find a really fantastic article on Weaver dating back to 2001 on  Read the whole thing.

Not unrelated to Weaver (as you’ll see for yourself once you’ve read the aforementioned piece) is a courageous—and not for the historically faint of heart—blurb on the illogical hatred of the South, written by Paul Gottfried.  I myself used to think of the South as nothing but slave owners and NASCAR drivers, but sooner or later I grew up and realized, in no small part due to Weaver, that there is a great tradition of thinking and culture in the South.  I also had a teacher from North Carolina, and he was one of the most insightful people I’ve ever dealt with.  We used to have conversations about the lies told in public school text books about the civil war.  (For now, we need only say that if Lincoln cared about the slaves, he would have bought them and freed them. Basta.)  At any rate, here it is.

Hat tip to Serge.

The arts and the public sector

A while back, Aristotle introduced some discussion here about the relationship of the arts to the government–or you might say the relationship of the arts to the government’s money, which is another way of saying the relationship between the arts and the money that the government steals from your back pocket.

I am a musician and have been for my entire life.    I also happen to be opposed to any ties between the artistic world and the government.  Most of my colleagues would disagree with me, and in strong fashion, but there seems to be a number of considerations to which most have not given due reflection.

The foremost aspect of government sponsorship of anything at all is that money equals ownership, and ownership equals decision-making power.  This is not to say that the government, if it were to give money to the local opera house, would own either the building or the operation.  However, in deciding to give or not to give money to a particular endeavor, the State is determining which art is worthy of support and which is not.   They are being the artistic critic.

On what bases are such decisions made?  Art is fundamentally a folk phenomenon (folk in the real sense of that word…..not the hippie sense); it grows organically in the culture.  How can a bureaucracy be the arbiter of such a process?

It is frightening to me that some clown on the public payroll should get to decide which exhibit shows up at the art gallery and which does not.  In this way, the very real potential exists that society’s tastes can be shaped and molded by the art kommisars.  It all smacks of being so……Soviet.

“Ah, but surely as a musician you know that the tastes of the hoi polloi cannot be trusted, for modern man is artistically illiterate.”

Very true, particularly in the realm of music.

Let us consider one aspect of this artistic illiteracy.  (For now, we shall leave aside illiteracy in language which is no less a problem….)  I have friends who are music teachers in various states in the Northeast section of the United States.  Many of them have related to me the drastic cuts which arts education has suffered from W’s No Child Left Behind Act.  Schools, in a mad dash to make sure their students pass unconstitutional federally-mandated standardized tests, are leaving aside everything except reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  One is tempted to say that even these last three are studied only nominally.

As music education is cut, musical illiteracy will increase, and this will create an ever-growing inability amongst the hoi polloi to be artistically discriminating.  This will leave great art to languish, unnoticed, while the dunderheads who immerse crucifixes in jars of piss will be lauded as heroes.  (I am not as concerned about the “offensiveness” of such projects as you might think.  For me the stupidity is quite enough.)

Now this viscious circle seems quite convenient doesn’t it?  The State pulls the plug on arts education….but wait!  Lo!  It comes in as our Savior and rescues the artistic projects it deems to be worthy.  Oh thank you, arts kommisar, for saving me from a world devoid of beauty!  What would I do if it weren’t for you?  (end sarcasm here)

All of this seems to me to be a perfect argument to get the State out of all of this—funding for the arts, and even for arts education and education in general.  Let the smart people and the self-motivated in society create a milieu in which things of beauty can be studied with the deliberation they deserve.

Think I’m dreaming up the impossible?  Read up on monasteries.

Inspiration and Perspiration

I’ve had occasion lately to think about the gift (and the problem) of inspiration.  As a musician, this is central to my life.

One of my middle school art teachers once said that the artist needs to be inspired before he perspires, that one cannot set about an artistic task without a driving force behind it.  I have been of two minds on this issue, but the more of life I get through, the more I think that he was right.  All the self-motivation in the world cannot make up for any lack of inspiration, and the lifeless, or even trite, results of forced artistic work bear this out.

The bigger problem, however, is what to do when one finds himself in the midst of a dry spell.  As a professional musician, I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, sorry, not feeling inspired today.  Maybe sometime later?  I usually peak around midnight or 2am.”  That’s not feasible, obviously, and the artist, particularly live performers such as musicians, actors, and dancers, need to find ways of dealing with this.  Failure to do so leads to burnout, and burnout can be fatal to the artistic career, and at astoundingly young ages, at that.

To be sure, anyone who’s thought through this will have their own ways of dealing with the problem of inspiration.  Only recently, I found a way of looking at this situation which has the advantage being re-energizing without being contrived.  It is this:  whatever composition one is studying, take the time just to imagine what sort of inspirational experience and/or state of being was required for the composer to come up with such a thing.  Forget compositional technique or theoretical prowess.  Rather, focus on the question of what the driving force behind a given piece of art is.

I must say that this has transformed the way I look at music.  (I should also say that this exercise only works with great music.  Throw away anything that is not spectacular, for it has nothing to say.)  Take, for instance, what Bach did in his Fugue in D Major, BWV 532.  There is in this piece an almost Beethovenian refusal to bring it all to a conclusion, as one joyous exclamation supercedes another.  Without much reflection such repetitiveness can perhaps become annoying, until one asks the question:  What possessed Bach to do this?  We don’t need to know the exact answer to this question, really, but we can surmise to our benefit that, whatever inspired such shouts of exultation must surely have been a grand and glorious thing, and sometimes that is all it takes to renew the artistic soul.

Here’s a recording of the Bach, played by Felix Hell.  (Note, the filmer is a different Michael Lawrence!)

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart