Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea

Arnold Schoenberg was a hated man. This is the consequence of being a pioneer, an original thinker, his big mouth notwithstanding. I’m not trying to crown him with infallibility, but only to give credit where it’s due. Our culture loves the yellow journalism technique of painting with broad strokes of sycophancy or character assassination, depending upon the frenzy of the moment. There is little room for careful discussion.

We live by a kind of cult of personality that obsesses on surface details, and I’m not sure it’s anything new. Human history is a monument to the permanence of stupidity, and that’s largely a fact that has to be accepted. With this backdrop, the prophets and the geniuses can look like dreadful fools. I prefer to see them as heroes. It takes great dedication to turn one’s head into the wind in the hopes that a massive effort will yield the tiniest result, the slightest movement of mankind away from absolute buffoonery. Alas, most of us would rather admire a fireman that climbs a tree to rescue the neighbor’s cat.

Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on a wide range of musical and other topics. The title is well-chosen: His central thought revolves around the essence of the idea. He shuns superficial appearances in fanatical fashion, to the point of overstating his case at times. This is forgivable. After all, what philosopher hasn’t overstated his case? Schoenberg is concerned with what the composer has to say: What is his thematic material? How does he apply it? How does he develop it? To Schoenberg, style grows naturally out of an idea. It is backwards, in his mind, to sit down and say, “I want to write a piece in the style of early 20th century France, or in the style of Anton Heiller.” This leads to hollow music making. I’m reminded of Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” or the churchy ear candy of Dom Lorenzo Perosi.

Schoenberg’s obsession with the musical idea itself is refreshing in the age of music that the author himself describes as having limited psychological appeal; music that “goes right to the feet.” There is nothing wrong with vapid music if it is played in the dance club or the gym; the problem is that too much music is vapid. The head of the Second Viennese School, however, runs a bit off course at places, in my opinion, because of this admirable core belief in the idea. For instance, he writes about the “primitive ears” who prefer to relish tone colors over other musical matter. I guess we know what he thought of the music of Olivier Messiaen! Related to this is his strange idea about instrumentation and orchestration. While he doesn’t argue for anything coming close to a total absence of colorful variety, he calls for a slimmed-down orchestra, one that gets rid of “useless” instruments that have a limited scalar, dynamic, or artistic compass. He asks whether the bassoon, for example, has ever been anything but comical. I’m more inclined to agree with Ernest M. Skinner that the bassoon can assume any character. The Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird comes to mind as an instance in which it is something other than funny.

All the same, Schoenberg claims that the orchestra’s power comes from its variety of tone color, and he cites the pipe organ as an example to prove this. Baroque organs, which were built on largely homogenous choruses, were not powerful, but Romantic organs, which were conceived with solo voices in mind, can knock the walls down. (Organ aficionados will relish the ironical choice of Schoenberg’s words that “loudness is achieved through mixture.”)  This is completely on Cloud Kookooland, and it’s pretty safe to say that Schoenberg was not acquainted with the research of Skinner, who discusses this subject in his book The Composition of the Organ. It was progress in the ability to develop higher wind pressures in organs, and therefore more largely-scaled pipes, that have allowed more modern instruments to blow off the archbishop’s mitre with a middle C. None of this is to say that I find Schoenberg’s streamlined orchestra to be an attractive idea; he simply chose the wrong example in arguing for what he sees as a moderate approach to this reform.

Schoenberg also has a strange approach when it comes to modality. He sees the efforts of late 19th and early 20th century composers to write in modes to be useless, an adoption of an outdated musical technique. To his credit, though, this might be the only point in the book when he caves in to the temptation to Whiggism. Schoenberg thinks this attitude is based on progress, but it really seems like it’s actually based upon a misapprehension of the modes. Implying that the half-step relationships of a scale are the only ones capable of establishing a tonal center in certain stereotypical ways, he says that all the ancient modes can be reduced to two: major and minor. And yet, he forfeits his argument when, in a later essay, he rightly states that the establishment of a key can be a difficult thing that is often only achieved by restating the tonic until it can be perceived as home base. Can’t the same repetition be used in modal constructions? Is E not the final of Pange lingua? Is it really just a melody in C Major that ends on the third? I don’t think so.

Naturally, Schoenberg spills a great deal of ink on the concept of “atonality,” a term which he disliked. He takes issue with those who claim he was a revolutionary; he saw his music, rather, as an outgrowth of everything that came before it. It might seem preposterous to those obsessed with initial impressions, but it makes perfect sense. Think of Hans von Bulow’s reaction to the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If that is music, it makes Tristan sound like Haydn.” The assertion that a new piece of music is aural nonsense has been a favorite game of the stodgy for a least five centuries, and it is useless. Moreover, if by “atonality” we mean music that lacks a key, we are describing a lot of music that existed long before Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality, like metrical music, might well prove to be a passing fad in music history, in the long run. Schoenberg cites some examples of dissonance in history—Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” and Beethoven’s Great Fugue. I would add certain measures of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali to that list, and one could make some very powerful arguments that in Bach’s music tonality was not always front and center. So much for revolution.

Schoenberg takes the time to discuss formal considerations viz. “atonality.” In older music, sections were often demarcated by modulations; in the absence of key centers, other methods of formal articulation are needed. This seems to him to be the primary problem to be solved with the new style of music, and not any notion that dissonance is against the “laws of nature.” Gravity pulls us downward, Schoenberg reminds us, but airplanes carry us upward. Planes are contrary to nature, yet they use the laws of nature. This is in addition to the fact that even the most remote dissonance is somewhere on the overtone series, which is the “law of nature” of harmony. Moreover, in Schoenberg’s music, dissonance is not a thing in itself, not necessarily a manner of poetic expression, but rather a result of the musical ideas. It’s a far cry from Charles Ives going back to his scores and adding crunchy chords in order to make his music sound “modern.”

Schoenberg’s writing comes from the fire in his belly. He might be a logician, but he is not the cold logician that many cartoon writers claim he is. The proof of this is in his rejection of the many efforts of Hauer and other theorists to codify the musical language of the Second Viennese School. Most music majors have had to make at least one matrix in their careers, writing a tone row and sticking to it slavishly. It feels more like calculus than music. This is not Schoenberg, who was more comparable to Palestrina, who never hesitated to change a note to make a passage work. These men are music-makers, not pipe-layers. This truth is not convenient for those who brandish their historicist clubs in the dungeons of what passes for music criticism these days, and many listeners, hungry for an excuse to dislike Schoenberg’s music, are all too quick to latch on to these careless ideas rather than to listen to the music from the inside out, focusing on the ideas rather than the surface impressions.

It is enough to be an innovator in musical language, but as it turns out Schoenberg was even more, as he invented a new system of musical notation which, as far as I know, has not really been adopted. With three broadly-spaced lines, it’s reminiscent of the early efforts at diastematic notation. Exact pitches are notated by placing noteheads directly adjacent to or away from the lines, with the additional help of slashes that further clarify a note’s position. Using this technique allows the composer to notate a much wider range in an equal vertical space, and in many ways it might be superior to the standard five-line staff. But I can’t see it ever being adopted. As it is, string players don’t like to play in flat keys; how will we ever convince everyone to completely learn a new notation system, even just for modern music? Nonetheless, these efforts show the fertility of Schoenberg’s mind; if he were just a rabble-rouser he wouldn’t have bothered with a project such as this.

There are other things to admire about Schoenberg, too. He was certainly an astute observer. His thinking on vibrato reminds me of Lilli Lehmann and Joseph Joachim, both of whom used vibrato as an ornament and did not indulge in the “goat-like bleating” that Schoenberg rails against. He has interesting thoughts on the relationship of the music to the text as well: While one might (might…) be able to accuse Handel of word-painting at a superficial level, Schoenberg is more concerned with more hidden relationships between the music and the text, aspects that might not be apparent at first blush. I’m reminded of the work of certain chant scholars in this regard, who find definite relationships between the text and the music that are missed by those who go at the problem with the Baroque model in mind. Then there is the question of the downbeat. From Bach, Schoenberg says, he learned disregard for the strong beat of the measure. How many performances have been ruined by a continuous assault on the downbeat? Schoenberg offers a remedy for this tendency: aiming for the “center of gravity” of a phrase. There are debates about whether the melody or the rhythm is primary in music; Messiaen, for instance, says that any melody will always have rhythm and therefore that rhythm is primary, but does this mean we should forget the line? Rhythm is a method of organization or articulation and not in all cases the primary thing. Schoenberg asks us to remember the melodic line, and I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. It’s a pretty reasonable response to an argument that is more or less myopic.

As one would expect, Schoenberg takes some time at the end of the book to comment on several composers. He loved Mahler and thought him a saint; hated Stravinsky and regarded him a panderer; offers well-measured praise for George Gershwin. He sees in Brahms not the pure classicist but the progressive who was a master of the irregular phrase. The book wraps up with some comments on social and political matters. At the end of it all, Schoenberg, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Austria, seems to have been in a very healthy, a-political place. Politics, after all, is for lesser men.

On many of the subjects that Schoenberg takes on, one can quibble, or even boldly object, and I in fact don’t find myself in complete agreement with him. In one thing, however, I hope there will be unanimity: Arnold Schoenberg was a true artist. By this I’m not necessarily referring to the way his work turned out, but rather the spirit in which it was created. He was a man who had the need, the urge to create. There was the desire, as he put it, to let off the “internal pressure” of a gestating work. More than that—fundamentally, even—he wanted to say something, to create a thing of beauty: Not just to pander to stylistic expectations, not to sell records, not to get in tight with a conductor or an orchestra manager with an agenda, but to make music. That is, after all, the vocation of the musical artist. We could do far worse in finding a role model.

Thomas Merton: Seeing the Salvation of God

For several months I have been feeling diffuse, totally out of control of my life. Tension and anxiety can rule during such periods, and it’s no fun. I sleep with the television on to block out the runaway train of my ruminations. Sometimes it works; sometimes it makes things worse.

I had been seeking some good wholesome, even spiritual, reading to put myself back together, to get rid of that feeling of being a disassembled jigsaw puzzle. But what should I read? Nothing I found in my own library or on Amazon seemed to be what I needed right now. Then a friend of mine gave me this book, The Intimate Merton—a selection of his journal writings from just before he entered the monastery in 1941 until his untimely death in 1968.

Merton was a monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he went by his religious name, Fr. Louis. He was born into a cultured family and spent a great deal of his childhood in Europe. He was a student at Oxford and Columbia and a gifted writer.

Merton is perhaps most famous for his confessions, The Seven-Storey Mountain, his story of conversion to Catholicism, which was published early in his life. This is how I first made my acquaintance with his work in college, but since then I’ve been unable to dig in too much to his other books, until this volume of journals came along.

He was no stranger to controversy. Even in the “anything goes” Sixties a monk was playing with fire by dabbling in Eastern religions. In about 1965 the Abbot gave Merton permission to live by himself in a hermitage separate from the rest of the monastery, which occasioned some murmuring amongst the more traditionally-minded. Documentation of irregular behavior—he did in fact fall in love with a nurse who cared for him after an operation and stayed in touch with her for some time—has almost certainly derailed any possibility of his ever becoming a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, though the Episcopalians celebrate a feast in his honor on December 10, the date of his death.

Merton was an honest soul, which is to say that he was a tortured one. His private journals illustrate constant agonizing over whether or not he was doing the right thing. This only seemed to get worse with age. Some people can’t stand indecision, but I think this is what makes Merton so readable. There is an intellectual humility that appeals to anyone who is not a self-assured jackass. Bertrand Russell seems to be his agnostic or atheist counterpart. It certainly isn’t Richard Dawkins. “Humility is more important than zeal,” Merton wrote on December 11, 1961.

Like many great figures of history, Merton’s work is needlessly circumscribed by the human tendency to shoehorn everyone into a category, to decide if he’s a This or a That—and then to embrace or oppose him accordingly. This does great violence to thinkers, even to many of the people we admire the most. Merton is often considered a darling of the Catholic Left, and certainly he was liberal about many things. But I wonder how many people who fixate on these things know, for instance, that Merton carved out his own path with respect to the reforms and upheavals that were taking place in the Catholic Church in the wake of the II Vatican Council. The point, I guess, is that he deserves to be taken on his own terms, like everyone else does. Off with the tyranny of intellectual collectivization!

As a musician, I found a number of journal entries that could be set to music. His recounting of the fire watch on July 4, 1952 is particularly stirring, in which he intertwines a description of the rounds of the monastery’s night watchman with a love song to God that serves as a precious mirror image of the work of St. Francis:

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.

As an owl, this appeals to me very much. “The night,” says Merton, “was never made to hide sin but only to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play among the stars.”

Young Fr. Louis winds his way through the monastery, and eventually up to its peak, the steeple, from which he can seeing the rolling hills of the countryside, where he meditates on the beauty of creation and what he calls God’s unanswered question—hints of Leonard Bernstein?

Lord God of this Great night: do you see the woods? Do You hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do You behold their secrecy? Do You remember their solitudes? Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?

“It must be nice to sit around and think all the time,” some of you must be saying. Merton clears this up: solitude will force you to face all your faults, all the ugly stuff of life, in a very real way. I have heard as much from other monks. And look at all the distraction people indulge just to avoid having to think about anything. That’s what television is for, after all. In a very real sense, Merton, in all his solitude was more alive than many of us will ever be. This kind of life is not meant for everyone, but it’s the only way to live for those who are destined for it.

This is one of those books that changes the tempo of the reader’s life. It’s impossible to spend much time with Merton before he rubs off on you. I found myself cultivating little shelters of silence, slowing down my pace in general, stopping to enjoy little beauties that we’re usually tempted to dismiss as insignificant. And then I stopped needing the television to put me to sleep at night, and I’m even considering cutting back on the caffeine. Well, maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

More significantly, though, I have developed more of an aptitude for patience while reading this book. Most thoughtful people grant Merton a certain measure of respect, and yet his whole life seems unresolved. One of the debates which is had about him is whether or not he was ceasing to be Christian in favor of Buddhism toward the end of his life. (His journal entries do not bear this out, in my opinion.) His life is one big, aimless journey through the desert. In fact, Merton spends a great deal of time in his journals talking about Bl. Conrad, a Cistercian monk who was quite literally a wanderer. Conrad did not appeal to him early in life, but as he grew older he started to see the value of his story, and he ceased to expect his life to be a microcosm of the Whig Theory of History—a constant ascent uninterrupted by setbacks, detours, and even deliberate changes.

I have this same frustration. We all do, I suppose, and experience teaches us to chill out about it. “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans,” John Lennon said. And that’s okay. We are meant to live life as human beings, and not as online dating profiles where everyone has a master plan to be well fed and happy into eternity, working in the amazing career that they envisioned for themselves at the ripe old age of nineteen while living in an eight bedroom house in West Chester.

The same concept applies to all of God’s unanswered questions. There are puzzles which we will never be able to solve, and other puzzles that we will assemble and put back together a hundred times in the course of our life. These are not failures; these attempts are some of the greatest joys of human existence. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it is hard to find someone who is certain who is not also an insufferable jerk. (Mea culpa.) So I am content with the questions and enough space to contemplate them all. As Merton himself said, “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

Maybe this makes the most sense when we consider one final thing. Merton offers a meditation on the sentence, “Be vigilant, and you will see the salvation of God.” He makes an important distinction here: This does not be mean to be patient while you wait for the salvation of God to arrive. Rather, be vigilant, so that you can see the salvation of God which is already here and which we often miss because we aren’t looking.  How often do we waste energy actively looking for something when what we need is right under our noses, but we don’t see it because we aren’t looking in the right place? I suppose that an important part of humility is being willing to sit tight and allow the unanswered questions to answer themselves.

Knowing and Unknowing: Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy

“Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That’s the way the mind of man operates.”—H.L. Mencken

For all of history, mankind has been grappling with the great questions that life poses.  Some are answerable, some unanswerable.  Through the millennia many seemingly insoluble problems have been dealt with, thanks, for example, to science.  Other puzzles, like the best means to organize society, seem hopelessly complicated.  But philosophers continue boldly to tackle the conundrums of human existence, betting on impossible idealism rather than settling for meaningless materialism.

Bertrand Russell’s summary of these human endeavors is a priceless tool in understanding the history, the meaning, and the possibilities of philosophy.  He was himself a philosopher, though I suspect he would never have presumed to take on that title himself.  Intrepid and yet humble, Russell knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know, as well as what can be known and by what means it can be known.  This is the mark of both intellect and maturity, not to mention that grayest of English vices: common sense.  You will not find any reductio ad absurdum in his work.

The writer makes no secret about what he thinks of any given school of thought, but he treats all arguments fairly, even those of the Medievals, with whom, one imagines, he would have the greatest differences.  He saves his delicious scorn and mockery for those who truly deserve it. Punctuated by his dry wit, all 800 pages of this book come to life, and one gets the feeling that philosophy is not mummified, that it really does matter.  This impression is helped along by Russell’s thorough treatment of world events alongside the philosophies that developed contemporaneously with them.  Sentiment, as Richard Weaver said, is anterior to logic, and sentiment often comes from circumstances.

One wonders if this book didn’t at least partially inspire Monty Python’s movie The Meaning of Life.  A Leibnizian moment occurs in the introduction, for instance, when God picks up a global earth and a cubic one, hefting one in each hand, trying to decide which one is best.  God chose the best of all possible worlds, Leibniz tells us, “and everything is a necessary evil,” one commentator added.  In the movie, the best world is the cubic one, of course, Cleese and Chapman, et al., being the delightful imps that they are, who bring us Panglossian delight.

Russell’s treatment of the philosophers is chronological, systematic, concise, and lucid—unlike this sentence.  It seems probable that all ideas were thought of by the pre-Socratic thinkers, and we have simply been arguing about them ever since.  In this company are atomists, relativists, socialists, and even a guy named Anaxagoras who theorized about a heliocentric solar system eons before Copernicus.  The major innovations of modernity have been scientific.  Our ability to create technology and understand nature has led to unprecedented health and wealth in our time.  The one purely abstract novelty in modern philosophy might belong to John Locke, who’s idea of tolerance was the basis of liberalism, though everyone these days, including liberals, seems to be faltering on this point.

After the empiricists and rationalists, I’ve found, much philosophy can be dense and downright indiscernible for the amateur reader like myself.  With these writers Russell does a marvelous job of crystallizing their work into a recognizable language.  With him even Hegel is not insurmountable.

I already mentioned the author’s common sense.  Good taste in thought often puts one at odds with the mobocracy, and I do think that pretty much anyone could find a reason to dislike Bertrand Russell.  This is why I like him, even though I also have some quibbles to add, all of which may well spring from my own shortcomings rather than the author’s.

Most crucially, Russell trusts too much in mathematical analogies to make points in which math has no business.  Arguments about infinite regress cannot be solved by pointing out that certain series of numbers have a beginning point.  It’s simply irrelevant.  I find, however, that most scientists are more satisfied by hard scientific facts than I am.  This is a mental disorder I’ve had all my life.  Ask my parents.  I was the brat who always asked why.  I was a walking infinite regress.  So be it.

Russell is very skeptical of private property rights, which might be why he can hail John Dewey almost without reservation.  God knows there have been monsters on this earth who have used their property rights to commit all kinds of unspeakable acts, but has anyone come up with a better way? It seems to me that we either have property rights, or a gang leader who beats anyone who doesn’t get in line.  All political philosophies, it seems to me, have a tendency to one way or the other, though one could argue that both succumb to the dark side of human nature.  We’re left to ask, I suppose, which approach succumbs the fastest.

A further thought about Russell’s views on private property rights:  John Locke developed the homesteading theory, which says that a man makes, for instance, an undeveloped plot of land his own property by mixing his labor with it, by fixing it up.  Russell says that this theory is no longer useful in modern society.  I disagree. I rather see the modern methods of trade and wage-earning as extensions rather than contradictions of the homesteading theory.  This is important: If we perceive the intimate relation of man’s work to his person, his rights to his acquisitions become more concrete. The homesteading theory helps us to envision this, and it is in any case true even if it isn’t useful.

Of all the figures considered in this tome, Nietzsche may well be treated the worst.  This is understandable, as Russell was writing in 1943 while the world was wrestling with the ghastly consequences of this philosophy.  But Russell, being something of a social democrat, goes too far, in my opinion.  No lie gains a foothold without some truth in it, and there is an element of truth in Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian stance.  There is, as Jefferson said, a natural aristocracy in humanity, and our refusal to recognize this, while it has not been as disastrous as other ideas, has been detrimental to our societal health.  The practical effect of egalitarianism in many places is that excellence is banned.  Saying this will get you branded an elitist these days, but that’s just sentiment driving logic—along with the assumption that elitism, as such, is necessarily bad.  All this is a small point in the vast landscape of the Nietzschean scorched earth, but I think it’s one worth mentioning.  Qui distinguit, bene docet.

I also think there’s more to Henri Bergson than Russell seems to believe.  We are running into the limits of logic. Just consider the developments in particle physics that have left everyone baffled.  The age of the syllogism is over, and Bergson’s picturesque language may offer a way out of this jam.  Bergon’s work seems to rely heavily on Hegel’s Absolute Idea.  He is a monist; he insists that all matter is one, that pieces are really a part of the whole, and that we use our intellect to cut them down into pieces.  Reality is like a chicken, and matter is like little bits of chicken that we cut with the knife of the intellect. (Do we then cook the bits in little pots? Sorry. Monty Python gets the best of me sometimes.) I think I have this right.  Corrections are welcome.

My sympathy for Bergson may be related to his language about time, which is put more in psychological than mathematical terms. (No wonder Russell, the mathematician, disliked him.)  “This reminds me of the music of Olivier Messiaen,” I thought to myself as I read up on this.  Sure enough, a subsequent Google searched yielded up discussion of Bergson’s theory of time as it relates to Messiaen.  Bergson’s ideas would do a lot of good for our contemporary tick-tock, watch the clock society.

Bertrand Russell’s anti-war sentiments are made clear throughout the book.  Maybe it is his belief in the power of reason that drives this conviction. Those who think often feel less compelled to succumb to the barbaric urge to destroy one’s neighbor rather than to figure him out and negotiate with him.  There are still plenty of seemingly insoluble problems in our world, and the temptation to succeed by force is great when one is faced with a Gordian knot.  But if the history of philosophy is any indication, many of these issues can be solved peacefully if man can learn to think with his brain instead of his testicles.  Whether or not society can produce people capable of reading books like this one may decide the ultimate destiny of man.

Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind

When I was a child, I can remember wondering about all kinds of seemingly insoluble questions.  Why am I here?  Where was I before I was born?  How could I come from not existing at all to being a real person?  If my parents had not married, would I have existed in someone else’s body, as the child of other parents?

If the world and the universe was created, what existed before it?  Nothing?  How could nothing exist?  How could there be no things, and no time?  Is all of this a cruel joke, or is it an ineffable mystery?  One of my favorite problems had to do with colors.  What if what we both agree is green looks different to you and me?  Could one person’s red be another person’s purple?  I wasn’t talking about color blindness, as my father always assumed; I was talking about people who could differentiate colors who nevertheless perceived them differently.

I remember pondering some questions of existence along these lines one day while riding in the car.  I can still remember exactly where I was when it all overwhelmed me, and I felt overcome with a dazzling confusion.  An eight-year-old runs out of words for these kinds of things quickly, but we might just consider that honesty, as opposed to an adult who can go on for a bit longer without really saying anything.

Few of the clergy and none of the school teachers are interested in questions like this, and so I went years without realizing that there is a whole body of work that deals with the ultimate—or, if you wish, fundamental—questions.  I speak, of course, of philosophy.  As a graduate of a music conservatory, my only class in this lasted a mere semester, and it wasn’t very good, at that.  But it did introduce me to thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and Augustine—even Erasmus (a loveable fellow) and Luther.  And after I got over my hatred of the course work (when the class was over, obviously), I developed a delight in delving into these volumes.

Over the years I picked up a spotty self-education in philosophy and religion, with lots of gaping holes and little systematic understanding.  Until two weeks ago.  I was in Baltimore and stumbled upon a used book store, which—like most used book stores—had an ample philosophy section, compliments of the incurious who are eager to dump old required reading from college.  Among other things, I picked up Richard Tarnas’s book, The Passion of the Western Mind, which covers the whole of Western thought from pre-Socratic Greece up until its publication in the early 1990’s.  I’ve been looking for something like this for awhile, something good in which the author does not have an ax to grind and in which he does not, once he gets to modern times, go down obscure rabbit holes while trying to pass them off as the whole of contemporary thought.  Tarnas’s book is such a work.

This book possesses one of the foremost hallmarks of greatness, which is the invisibility of the author.  It is as if you’re reading directly from Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.  I think this has something to do with Tarnas’s genuine curiosity.  While he intimates that he does not agree with the thinking of Medieval Christianity, he nevertheless gives it quite a fair hearing and urges the reader to understand the importance of knowing what people like Aquinas really said, so that we can better appreciate what came later, particularly the work of William of Occam and the epistemological conundrum that the West found itself in once reason and revelation were separated.  This problem led to the work of Descartes and the debate between the English empiricists and the Continental rationalists and culminated—for a short time—in the synthesizing work of Immanuel Kant.

Two things dawned on me while reading all of this.  First, there is not a thought or a question that you or I have ever had that was not considered centuries, if not millenia, ago.  We have been wrestling with the same angels and demons in the night for our entire history, and one idea comes into ascendence as another fades away.  There is not much originality in the world; the scale of our thought only has so many notes.  Second, it seems that philosophers, as much as I love them, often stake out opposite but equally ridiculous positions in a given debate.  Those who try to come up with something more reasonable or nuanced are often ignored.  Etienne Gilson, in his book Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, discusses Thomas Aquinas’s attempted compromise between the Latin Averroeists, who were ultimately rationalists, and the mystics in the thirteenth century.  Aquinas was ignored, thanks to the inroads the Averroeists had made, and this resulted ultimately, for better or worse, in the divide between science and religion.

But it is not just a problem of philosophical stubbornness or extremism that causes this.  As we think and write and question, it seems as if we’re going around in circles around a great big hole, an empty space where truth seems to reside and which will tolerate no description in words.  Our attempts to get there only lead to distortion and confusion.  The musical scale of our thought, as it were, must be translated into a new mode, and from what place will these New Songs come?

Does this mean that philosophy is a waste of time?  I don’t think so.  To approach even the unanswerable questions makes us more human, if only because it makes us more humble.  We don’t know as much as we think we do, and philosophers are usually the first to admit that, the folksy protestations of the pragmatic notwithstanding.  This confrontation with the ineffable is precisely what makes philosophy a passion, in both senses of the word:  It is a love affair, but it is also a suffering.  Even today, borrowing from St. Paul, humanity groans as it tries to give birth to a fuller understanding of what it means to exist.  There is, in my opinion, only one disastrous outcome possible—that we cease our labors and begin to live as animals, witless participants in a technologically-advanced dark age of stupidity.

One cannot write, or read for that matter, a history of Western thought without wondering where we go from here.  Tarnas puts a lot of stock in the idea of a collective conscious and in the reuniting of male and female which he shows has been a recent theme in many spheres.  He’s surely no cultural traditionalist, but I don’t think this idea should be dismissed out of hand.  In Christ, St. Paul said, there is neither male nor female.  Maybe this has eschatological and not just evangelical meaning.  Angels have no gender.  Think, too, of all the ancient texts that intimate that the sexes grew separately out of the same source.  There are, of course, crazy people who would put all boys on Ritalin if they could so they behaved more like girls, but I don’t believe this is what Tarnas is aiming for.  He’s on another plane entirely.  If I tried to sum up his position I would likely do it some violence, so just read the book, and allow yourself to wonder along with the author.

Every commentator has his favorite hobby horse when it comes to theories about what it is that ails modern society.  Maybe the good news is that they all seem to agree that society is ailed.  This is a start.  I myself am unmoved for the most part by drug use, teen pregnancy, wars, violence, and the like.  They should be eliminated, yes, but they are nothing new.  What troubles me is the fundamental shift in what knowledge is considered to be.  You are thought educated these days if you can perform brain surgery but few believe it to be essential to be curious about what the first cause of the material world is.  We will not cease to feel homeless—and therefore prone to all manner of self-destructive behaviors—until we can at least begin to be curious about these ultimate questions.  Many philosophy books are dry, and so the undergraduate careerist shirks them off and takes them to the used book store.  But Tarnas’s book is anything but boring and has the power to stir up the enthusiasm of even the most rotten materialist.  Whoever gave this book to the used book store was a fool.

Literary intoxication: Jeffrey Tucker’s Bourbon for Breakfast

In times like ours, when fair is foul and foul is fair, the proponents of good causes can often lead a dour existence and indulge in a crankiness which, if less than charming, is certainly understandable given the long odds they face.  Unfortunately this doesn’t do much for their causes, since people—even smart people, or, rather, especially smart people—don’t want to hear how dumb their ideas and tastes are.  What every good cause needs, then, is a force of positive energy, a source of joy to show the followers that cause x is not only worthwhile, but necessary for human growth and happiness.

Meet Jeffrey Tucker, the happy anarcho-capitalist.  Libertarians, like philosophers and artists of all stripes, are not exactly known for their joie de vivre.  We are seen as party-poopers, twits who are too attached to their intellectual ideas and not willing enough to “get with it”—“it” being some fad that has gotten swept up into the Zeitgeist.  The insufferably officious late William F. Buckley once chided us for worrying about stop signs when there were evil Russian peasants to murder.  I wonder, though, what Bill Buckley would do with the writings of Tucker, who, rather than get into complicated syllogisms like Murray Rothbard, or rather than writing ridiculous Objectivist creeds like Ayn Rand (who is only thought to be libertarian anyhow), simply finds the absurdities of the State and laughs at them, even when the autobiographical details show that he has suffered under its iron fist (though perhaps in these inflationary times the State’s fist is now comprised of zinc).  Tucker has every right to be bitter, but instead, he makes merry, and this is to his credit.  I would even say that this book presents a model of how to live a fulfilling, rounded life as an anarcho-capitalist.

It is impossible to read Jeff Tucker’s work and not come away loving life more.  Here is a man with a wide range of interests and intense curiosity.  I know this because I’ve known the author for a number of years now, so don’t expect this to be an unbiased review.  No writer is unbiased anyway; the sooner we take the masks off the more we’ll benefit.  Lou Holtz, in his account of Notre Dame’s last national championship in football, said that the difference between where you are now and where you are five years from now is the people you meet and the books you read.  In Jeff Tucker, I have someone who is now in both categories.  Jeff got me into running, Chartreuse, and shaving without cream.  (The latter subject is covered in the book.)  Now, after reading Bourbon for Breakfast, I have a few more things to do, such as figure out how to take that environmentalist wacko washer out of my showerhead.

To cover every subject in this review that Tucker covers in the book would be onerous, so I’d like to select my favorite subjects and start with one of the most pressing issues of our time:  toilets. About ten years ago, I took a new job, and shortly after my arrival noticed a sign above the toilet in the office:  “Please do not throw any paper towels into the toilet.  We have already had problems with this toilet.  Thank you.”  The sign seemed to suggest that said toilet was relatively new and not performing up to its expected capabilities.  More and more, I’ve noticed these signs over the past decade.  They are commonplace now.  Someone could make a lot of money by mass-producing a sign which says “Caution:  Toilets don’t work as well as they used to.”  Etc.

I never realized the culprit until I read Tucker’s articles on it.  The U.S. government, during the environmentally crazed days of the early nineties, passed legislation requiring toilets to use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush.  This, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is not enough to get the job done, unless it is one of those jetpack toilets that sprays dirty water all over the bathroom.  Tucker relates some of his own experiences with this State-imposed health crisis and rightly points out that if there is any effort on which resources should be liberally spent, it is on safely getting rid of human waste, which is one of the deadliest substances known to history.

Advocating the safe removal of crap from our toilets doesn’t exactly require a wellspring of political courage, but another topic that Tucker addresses does:  child labor laws.  When modern man thinks of child labor, he thinks of practical slavery, but the laws in this country didn’t come about until the early twentieth century, and then, as Tucker recounts, had a number of curious exceptions built into them, child actors most notable among them.  Commoner children could only work if they were making Christmas wreaths or something.  Moreover, these laws were conceived while the necessity for child labor was receding into American history; in other words, it was the prosperity created by capitalism, and not the benevolence of the State, which freed children from the necessity of sitting at a sewing machine for twelve hours a day, since adults were making more money and no longer required the extra household income.

Less honorable forces were at work, too:  Women’s labor groups, for instance, disliked the cheap competition offered by the children.  Many, including a number of church organizations, opposed the new child labor laws because they regarded it as the nationalization of children (what has happened since with respect to public education proves that they were right), and at least one congressman prophesied that the lack of work would make future generations lazy.  Well, now!  Tucker carries this ball the whole way to the goal line in “Generation Sloth,” which is a discussion on the dearth of working skills in some of the current generations.  Of course, we don’t want to get too Protestant and think that work is the be all and end all of existence—and how curious it is that in such a Protestant country laziness has taken over—but there is more than enough food for thought in these chapters.  One practical consequence of it all is that you cannot pay a neighborhood kid to fix your computer.

Anarcho-capitalists are not well understood by the general public and are often lumped in with all the apologists for the corporatist pigs.  This misconception is even easier to pull off these days owing to the vague illiterate socialism that seems to control the mainstream public discourse.  Tucker reveals the lie in all this when he discusses one of his foremost passions:  Intellectual Property.  He is one of the first libertarians, perhaps second only to Stefan Kinsella, who has come out against these supposed “rights” and shows exactly how the whole IP concept is inimical to a libertarian worldview which respects private property rights and free exchange.  Tucker admits that past libertarians had not thought much about this issue and that the default position was in favor of IP, but the new trend is reshaping libertarian opinion in this area.  Offering items for free online which would normally be controlled by IP, such as books, Tucker insists, is actually better for everyone in the long run, including the author.  I have personally witnessed Jeff transform the viability of causes with this approach, and every time a book is offered for free online, its sales at the warehouse skyrocket at the same time.  The trouble these days is that the publishers have everyone, including the writers themselves, under their thumbs, and so books and ideas—perhaps ones deemed too dangerous?—are left to squander while the giant book corporations refuse to put items back in print but demand to hold onto the “rights” to the material.  There is a long history here, which Tucker recounts succinctly.

A hinge in Tucker’s thought occurred when he read Michelle Boldrin and David Levine’s book, Against Intellectual Property.  In this work they lay out the case for a freer dissemination of ideas.  It looks like something that ought to be added to my reading list, though I must offer a minor caveat based on what I’ve seen so far, and it concerns music, which happens to be my field of choice.  The authors posit that IP law is behind the stagnation in classical music over the past several decades.  This is entirely possible.  Musicians tend to be very territorial in their work in ways that are self-defeating.  A good example of this is the recent policy change by the American Guild of Organists, which now hides its job openings behind password protection, making it impossible for non-members to see one of the benefits of membership.  Twelfth century models like this are bound to fail.  All the same, I’d only add that the musical community itself often does everything it can to discourage normal people from liking classical music.  The fact that the term “classical music” makes us think primarily of stuff that is older than most countries rather than some of the truly great music of the past decade that has come from the pens of men like James MacMillan and Bo Holten is the foremost problem.  Add to that a pompously pious stern demeanor and you have the perfect recipe for total system failure.   The classical musical world is a caricature of itself.

On a more detailed note, Boldrin and Levine blame IP laws for the dearth of great music in England since 1750.  I am in no position to judge the laws in England of this time period, but I will say that much great English music has been written since 1750.  Could more have been written?  Quite possibly, but this is one quibble I must make.  Every time someone tries to assert that there have been no great English composers since Henry Purcell, I just want to scream, “Ralph Vaughn-Williams!”  And that’s only for starters. The twentieth century in particular saw a musical blossoming in those rainy lands; several of the composers, such as Charles Villiers Stanford, took after Brahms.  “No great music after 1750” is the kind of thing a musicologist would say so that he doesn’t have to study a school of composition that he doesn’t like.  It’s almost as laughable as the idea that anyone would actually want to listen to Purcell.

Speaking of Vaughn Williams, however, I will add a story here that strengthens Boldrin’s and Levine’s case.  John Weaver, organist, composer, and professor for many years at both Juilliard in New York and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, has written a wonderful little jazz arrangement of Vaughn Williams’ famous melody which is sung to the text For All the Saints.  He can’t get it published because—so I’ve been told by a reliable source—the heirs of the original composer find the piece to be objectionable and refuse to grant the necessary permission.  I can’t think of a reason why these heirs wouldn’t benefit from such a publication, and yet they use the IP laws to commit censorship.

Of course, laws of all sorts are used to harass people, and in the section on crime, Tucker gives us some pretty unpleasant glimpses of this ugliness.  There was a fateful stop sign in Jeffrey’s subdivision, mysteriously removed after causing much heartache and wallet damage, which serves as the main antagonist.  God only knows how many times he’s run this stop sign.  I’m tempted to take a pilgrimage to this fateful intersection.  Maybe we could raise money to erect a marker in memory of this red octagon which extols the virtues of liberty and the advantages of a rolling stop when no one else is around.  (I might add that South Philadelphians, including the cops, have perfected this art.)

Tucker begins this portion of the book by describing the harrowing experience of being arrested for failing to pay a ticket for running the aforementioned stop sign.  He forgot to pay it, no further notices were sent, and the next thing he ever heard about it was a dreadful knock at the door.  A probe into corruption on the part of local officials, which included FBI involvement, adds an interesting, if unsurprising, twist to the story, and the experiences of jail which he reports explode any myth of the accused being innocent until proven guilty.  In jail, you are an animal, as far as the Persons-in-Charge are concerned, and most people in the public go along with this attitude because they think they themselves will never be arrested for anything.

After discussing the pokey, Tucker moves on to a date in court to fight what is presumably a different ticket.  As he awaits his hearing, Tucker witnesses one poor person after the next being ushered in front of the judge to plead their case, only to lose big.  A particularly appalling example comes to us in the person of a woman who stole a pack of lunchmeat from Wal-mart.  For this petty theft she was fined $800 and had her license suspended.  In addition, she was banned from Wal-mart for life.  Interestingly, this was one of the few real crimes on the docket that day—some other poor chap lost his license for awhile for “public drunkenness,” even though he wasn’t anywhere near a steering wheel—but it was handled in perfectly unreasonable fashion.  The sad part is that the State has virtually stripped private business owners of the ability to handle these kinds of things in a more discrete and reasonable fashion.  Public access laws, for instance, prevent Wal-mart from banning this lady for a more reasonable time period, like a year or two; instead, they are forced to take the case to the State, which goes about blowing the crime out of proportion.  One wonders if this is an intended or unintended consequence of public access laws.   Anyone who thinks these laws are necessary needs to talk to a bar owner, who is one of the few businessmen left with much discretion over who patronizes his establishment.   “We don’t really get all the government that we pay for,” says Tucker, “and thank goodness.  Lord protect us on the day that we do.”

One of the things that everyone should know about Jeffrey Tucker is that he’s always pushing the people around him to become better than they are.  In fact, there is a  Facebook group called “Everything I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Jeffrey Tucker.”  One area in which I need to improve is dress.  Tucker’s remarks on this subject make me feel like a veritable slob; he contrasts the sharply dressed hobo on a park bench during the Great Depression with the polo-clad, cubicle-bound nincompoop of the past two decades.  I want to be better at this, but the effort is just overwhelming sometimes, and I feel like I’m trying to climb the proverbial greased pole that H.L. Mencken talks about.  Just the other day I ruined a shirt while ironing it.  It wasn’t the classic mistake of leaving the iron in one place for too long; it was far more complicated than that.  But it made me feel like a failure much like the inability to drink copious amounts of alcohol in the evening makes Tucker feel like a failure.  (This subject is also covered in the book.  The time to try this, he says, is when you are young and your body can handle it.)  It turns out that Jeff was in clothing retail and knows quite a bit about how to dress and how the clothes should fit, and he even knows how to find good deals on sharp outfits.  Read his advice carefully.  I just might have to follow through on this.  In the meantime, I plan to sound him out on why nine out of ten articles of clothing these days would do better as washrags.  I’ve noticed, for one thing, that even smaller-sized clothing assumes that the wearer will have a potbelly and a wide posterior, making me look like a floating cloud of whichever color it is that I’m wearing.

Tucker closes this compendium with a number of reviews of books and movies.  The depth of his comprehension is sometimes astounding; he can remember more from watching a movie once than many can from watching it ten times, and his book summaries are so excellent that he might want to watch out for the IP police.  Tucker’s discussion on Garet Garrett’s novel The Driver got my undivided attention.  The story features Henry Galt, a Wall St. financier who tries to wrest control of a failing railroad company.  This might not seem like much, but it’s certainly more exciting than late twentieth century novels about public housing projects.  A motif in the book is, “Who is Henry Galt?”  Tucker notes that many have speculated that Garrett’s novel inspired Ayn Rand’s character John Galt.  I think that’s putting it mildly, or perhaps putting it in a way that will keep all concerned parties out of court.

By now many are probably wondering what the title, Bourbon for Breakfast, has to do with any of these subjects.  On a basic level, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to indicate a worldview, an approach that would be sanctioned by diverse characters such as Richard Weaver, Joseph Pieper, and Murray Rothbard:  the idea that leisure is an important part of a life well-lived.  Tucker sat down at breakfast one morning with a Bible scholar friend who offered him some coffee—and then offered him some bourbon to go with it.  Mornings, to this man of Hebrew and Greek letters, were for contemplation, and not to be rushed.  Contemplation, or leisure, is necessary for freedom.  It keeps one’s mind from falling into a trance on the treadmill of the corporatist State.  More than that, though, a morning drink says, “I will celebrate; I will enjoy life and not let the taskmasters run me down.”  The State gives us to-do lists, but the morning drinker asks the real questions about life and reminds us of how good we really could be.  The morning drinker, unlike a messianic bureaucrat, doesn’t take life or himself too seriously.  He knows that if there is tragedy, there is also comedy, and sometimes the best way to ward off a demon is to laugh.  Nor does he feel the need to preach endlessly about the big, abstract issues.  He realizes that to know what the government is really like, we only need to observe how its agents act around toilets, stop signs, and stolen lunchmeat.

Of course, the idea of contemplation can become a double-edged sword, especially in the hands of the hopeless, who can turn isolation into pure anti-social misery.  Under the supervision of Jeffrey Tucker, though, it is a fountain of energy.  I don’t know how he accomplishes everything that he does.  I’ll grant that I’m a bit envious of the way he tackles seemingly lost causes with all the enthusiasm of a champion fighter; I myself, when it comes to expending energy, am like a finicky, health-conscious old woman in a buffet line.  There are days when I’m tempted to give up, to sign back up with some kind of limited government program, to find a local Kiwanis Club and live my life getting along just fine with Boobus Americanus.  But after reading this book I am just as convinced as ever that the struggle for a free society is not only worthwhile, it is worth engaging with a sense of joy and wonder and love of life.  In fact, it is the only way we will win the battle of ideas.