The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

October 24, 2019 at 10:32 am (By Amba) (, , )


I wrote briefly to a friend that I had seen this performance, and he responded:

I had heard or read the word bunraku  before but didn’t know what it was.  I searched You Tube and was delighted with what I found.   The marionettes are quite magical but the sound is beyond magic.  Listening to classical Japanese music is like walking among the redwoods in the early evening mist.  There is room in the air for everything that might come along.  In a way, the music is not created sound.  It’s more like the result of applying a filter to the sound of nature so that certain frequencies, among the sounds that comprise the world, have been selected out at that moment.  I’m not aware of any other musical tradition that evokes so convincingly the natural world without sounding forced or merely imitative.

That prompted me to write more about it:

What a marvelous description of Japanese music. That is certainly true of Zen music, shakuhachi and the very spare string accompaniment (shamisen?). But the music that went with this melodrama, which was really a kind of opera (“the sung narrative particular to bunraku,” says the program)—the text was part sung and part recited, really acted—was in large part more social and courtly (in the sense of an aristocratic court) than natural. It doesn’t say when it was written, but the Tokugawa shogunate apparently BANNED it in 1721 because it was provoking copycat love suicides (like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther) and wasn’t performed again for more than 200 years! A very ritualized, courtly kind of Buddhism, with pilgrimages and prayers and chants of “Namu Amida butsu,” in search of liberation, plays a part in the story. It’s about a prostitute (age 19) and her client (24) who really love each other and face insurmountable practical and social obstacles that drive them to despair.
Despite my long acquaintance with Japanese culture, the surface of the music was very alien, agitated and atonal (Webern’s got nothing on these guys). So it took me a while to penetrate the surface and begin to comprehend that this was a human comedy as well as a tragedy. A lot of the falsetto and hysteria in the (all-male) voices was probably as satirical as it sounded: behold the pathetic obsessions of these touchingly frail humans. (The helpless passions enacted by the colorful puppets contrast starkly with the enigmatic dispassion of their black-swathed manipulators.) Subtitles were projected above the stage, and quite a lot of the goings-on were about business and money. The author, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, is called the Japanese Shakespeare, and this story was quite a lot like Romeo and Juliet, another tale about very young people, which is foolish, flowery, and even funny for much of its length, until the tragic ending. In this tale, right up to the last minute the young people are coming up with all sorts of natural reasons (e.g. breaking their families’ hearts) for not going through with it. But then they do, in a gruesome, graphic, determined way. And in a forest, away from all the noise of society—and at that point the music becomes exactly as you describe it.



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Hear, Hear

October 21, 2019 at 12:46 pm (By Amba) (, )

Caitlin Johnstone ends an essay of exquisitely layered, aged-spirits-soaked mille-feuille political paranoia (she’s been at this a long time, and her paranoias are positively fractal) with this disclaimer, which I salute as the last word.

It’s so weird how we move through life like it’s no big deal, like “Yeah, just a toothy, fingery ape monster who consumes the life force of other organisms and excretes them out its anus walking around and looking at stuff in a universe that nobody understands, whatever.” I mean, we get THIS. This strange, shimmering, mysterious world full of flying feather beasts and air we breathe parts of into our bloodstreams and electromagnetic radiation which we process with our ocular organs, and people are still waiting around for a miracle. The miracle already happened. The miracle is here. What’s already happening currently dwarfs any miracle anyone is currently praying for by infinity orders of magnitude. And we only get a few years here. So like, I dunno, maybe let’s worry less about wrong people on the internet. By all means push for changes in this world. But never lose sight of the fact that the Really Big Deal in any given moment is not whatever change you’re trying to make, but the fact that this world is here at all, and that you get to stand up and look around in it for a while.

Whatever else happens, humanity, do pause to pull your head out of your a** and poke it out into the miracle as often as you remember.


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Status and Stature

October 18, 2019 at 2:50 am (By Amba)

[cross-posted on A Cold Eye]
Our brains are made to reward us with pleasure when we accomplish something. The purpose of this mechanism (the dopamine system) evidently is to motivate us to anticipate the reward and so to repeat the survival-promoting effort, such as hunting. (We have a predator’s version of this instinct; we stalk an insight as intently as a cat fixates on a spider, and make a “killing” on the stock market much as Paleolithic tribesman drove mammoths off a cliff.)
In an unanticipated kink of evolution, though, our brains are also clever enough to figure out how to take a shortcut to the pleasure reward and bypass the effort.
This arguably backfires in the long term—the pleasure loses potency when it’s pursued as an end in itself, leaving us trapped in addiction or stranded in meaninglessness. But in the short term it works very well, and there is loads of evidence that our natural focus, very hard to overcome, is on the short term.
There are a million illustrations of this, but the one I was thinking about this morning was status.
There are people who merit admiration by being masters of what they do, and there are people who go after admiration as an end in itself. You could actually call the first kind of reward “stature” and the second “status.”
The first group of people may enjoy admiration, but they wouldn’t enjoy it without earning it, and it makes them uneasy because they often wonder if they have really done enough to deserve it, and if they will be able to do it again. Such people are intently focused on what they do, and the reward of status, if it comes, is a byproduct—it may even be perceived as a dangerous distraction, a temptation to rest on one’s laurels and lose one’s mojo.
The first group of people are often not very good self-promoters, because self-promotion doesn’t really interest them. It would be a waste of their time. An example is the great artist who isn’t “discovered” and whose genius isn’t recognized until dead. (Not to get too Romantic about it, there have been exceptions—great artists who are also great self-promoters. They must be people with a double or triple helping of energy, because for most of us either art or self-promotion would be a full-time job.)
The second group of people are interested in a shortcut to status, and their art becomes a means to that end. They are assiduous self-promoters, often gifted at taking the public’s pulse and riding, or even creating, market trends for the kind of thing they do.
The catch is that people in general have a tendency to be dazzled by status and to overlook or underrate stature, which is loath to blow its own horn. The audience can’t always tell the difference, and their senses are attracted to what makes more noise and draws a crowd.

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The New Caesars

October 3, 2019 at 8:26 am (By Amba) (, )

Historian Claire Berlinski jokes that she’s “the Dear Abby of liberal democracy,” but she’s more like the Joan of Arc of liberal democracy, beating the bushes to raise an army. (Of course “liberal” has become a dirty word on both right and left, but it used to stand for an ideal claimed by both, the optimistic faith that freedom of thought and enterprise would bring out the best in people—with some healthy arguing over the details.) In Berlinski’s view, it’s giving way to “illiberal democracy” —”democracy without freedom.” She writes about the wave of “authoritarian populism” sweeping the world and of the “New Caesars” who (shades of the Roach Motel), once voted in, may make it impossible to vote them out.
This is worth reading. You can skip the hissy fit for unsubscribers at the beginning, and start with “The Dear Abby of Liberal Democracy,” and further down, “Newspeak: How Did We Get Here?” A couple of appetizers:
[to a reader in the Czech Republic] The first task: No despair. You may feel utterly overwhelmed by the weight of the illiberal forces lined up against you. … You will not be alone in feeling this way. But don’t succumb to this sentiment. This is a path to ruin. None of us can retreat, in the coming years—as we will surely be tempted—to the politics of internal exile. … We must learn from each others’ experiences … It’s especially important for ordinary American citizens to be in personal contact with citizens of what I call the laboratory countries, countries like yours—the countries where the New Caesars are experimenting with and perfecting their techniques.
* * *

[After quoting Orwell on “Newspeak”] The shrinking of our vocabularies … has not been imposed upon us. We’ve freely and willingly contracted our own verbal skills, our own reading skills, our own sense of nuance in our language … People who care about speaking and writing precisely—people who use the full range of the English language’s rich vocabulary, people who understand language as a subtle and nuanced tool—have become despised by both the right and the left as elitists.

This is perhaps an outgrowth of our commitment to egalitarianism, in that we are hostile to aristocracy in any form. Our educated elites were once a form of aristocracy. Perhaps they suffered so intensely from the shame of being aristocrats in an egalitarian country that they adopted not only the concerns of the popular classes, but their manner of speech. …

Whatever the causes of the diminution of the American vocabulary, it has had political effects. The effects are those Newspeak was designed to have. We lack the words we need to speak precisely and accurately about our own system of governance.
For more of this historically literate point of view, which may help to clarify your view of what’s going on in front of your eyes:
The New Caesarism: A Lexicon
The New Caesarism: A Lexicon, Part II

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Godzilla vs. Megalon

September 30, 2019 at 2:29 pm (By Amba, Uncategorized) ()

In The Law, human beings attempted to create an authority that would transcend their own best efforts to besmirch, evade, manipulate, and abuse it. A North Star of dispassionate justice that would shine far above the nonstop mud wrestling of human affairs.

In practice, of course, the law, a human product, has often been used as the protector of privilege or the refuge of scoundrels. But it is a work in progress, and over time it’s been hewn and refined and fought over toward something that begins to vaguely resemble the ideal of objectivity—to extend its protection to the powerless and its demand for accountability to the powerful, “without fear or favor.”

Those words, as you’ll see if you follow the link, arose in the context of journalism, which has now largely made a travesty of them. Only The Law is left.

(Digression: it’s interesting that the English, who tore through this globe creating, exploiting, and destroying with their mind-boggling drive to industrialize, capitalize, and colonize—a truth brought home to me by copyediting this forthcoming book—also created much of what we now know as The Law, and slowly, from Magna Carta to the reformers of the 19th century, broadened its protection, imperfectly, from the rights of property to the rights of the naked person.)

Here, you hear the authority and dignity of The Law awakening, shaking its wings, clearing its throat—not a moment too soon. Things have finally gone too far, rousing it from its “stony sleep,”  like the more-than-equal and opposite monster to Yeats’s in “The Second Coming“:

somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 

In The Law, we finally have a Godzilla to fight the Megalon of chaos.

Or, in a more mundane image, the parents burst through the door just as the kids who’ve been gleefully trashing the house are about to burn it down.

But The Law is no human parent. It’s our own imagining of a power authoritative and impartial enough to stop us from destroying each other and ourselves.


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I dreamt of Rainy this morning

September 8, 2019 at 12:07 pm (By Amba) (, , )


This poem came to mind.

Rainy wasn’t “placid and self-contained”; he was goofy, obsessive, and attached. (I suspect Whitman was thinking of a cow, a stupefied human creation.) The stallion Whitman describes later in this section of the poem, with his “eyes full of sparkling wickedness,” certainly isn’t “placid.”

But the scathing description of human behavior, that I can relate both to myself (at least the first two lines) and to the world. I was so glad to see Rainy.


~ Walt Whitman

from “Song of Myself,” 32


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Follow the Money. It Doesn’t Lead to Teachers.

September 8, 2019 at 10:17 am (By Amba) ()

Medium pundit Umair Haque’s anticapitalist rants can be over-the-top, but they can also be right on. His point below is not news, but it bears repeating, because we’ve become so resigned and dulled to it that we’re in danger of accepting it as normal.

[G]uys that self-evidently don’t know anything…not a thing…make millions — while a teacher can barely scrape together a middle class living…and even so, takes care of the kids in his or her charge on his or her own dime. Do you see a little bit what I mean by “incentives for knowledge being corroded so badly they’ve been twisted upside down”? I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m speaking quite literally. The Bret Stephenses and Morning Joes of our society are paid colossal amounts. The teachers and adjunct professors of our society can barely make ends meet. The “hedge fund managers” and “traders” of our society are paid massive fortunes. The teachers and adjunct professors can barely raise families. Real incentives. Real money. Real lives. Real social outcomes, too. […]

Now, American pundits will point out the obvious at this juncture. Educated Americans make more than uneducated ones! How can you say incentives for knowledge have been corroded!! . . . It’s true that educated Americans make more. Why is that, though? It’s largely because kids with Ivy League degrees head off to Wall St and Silicon Valley…where they rake it in. For…doing precisely nothing of any real value to society. Targeting ads more finely…finding cleverer ways to pump and dump stocks…these things have no benefit whatsoever, they just accrue profit. It’s not “education” per se that’s being employed here. It’s just that a specific kind of technical knowledge is worth more to capitalism than anything else.

Hence, if you have a PhD in physics, Wall St will pay you a fortune. But if you have a PhD in English…nobody will pay you much at all. But hold on: it’s the PhD in English that might have helped explain how the rhetoric of authoritarianism erodes the norms and values of a democracy, how today’s demagogues echo yesterday’s dictators, how to fight back against them using words and concepts. See my point? Nobody will reward you for having a PhD or even a Masters’ in our society outside a set of very, very narrow disciplines — mostly mathematical, mostly technical, all corporate. That’s because that kind of narrow skillset can be employed to maximize profit, to write more efficient algorithms, to optimize the code.

UPDATE: Bonus rant by Umair Haque—colonialism redux:

The deal that we — the rich world — offered the poor one doesn’t work anymore. It never did. It went like this. You’re poor. We’re rich. We’ll pay you to make the stuff that we need — but only as little as humanly possible, with the least respect for your rights, dignity, and development. We don’t care if your kids labour in sweatshops. We don’t care if your rivers and forests get chewed up. We don’t care if you never have a democracy. We only care about getting our stuff — as cheaply as possible.

That’s global predatory capitalism in a nutshell — the deal America came up with for the globe. Does it sound suspiciously like colonialism to you? It should. Colonialism’s logic was exactly the same, whether practiced by the British in India, the French in Indochina, or America in its very own south. If we can’t enslave you, we’ll pay you as little as possible, with as little respect for your human potential, to make our stuff. Take it — or leave it. (And, by the way, if you leave it? We’ll hit you with sanctions, maybe even bombs, probably CIA coups and plots. So you’d better…take it.)


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Garry Wills Links Gun Rights to Slavery

September 7, 2019 at 2:27 pm (By Amba) ()

From the New York Review of Books newsletter (I added the red bolds):

This week we published an essay by the historian, writer, and longtime Review contributor Garry Wills titled “The Rights of Guns.” After the recent series of mass shootings—in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso and Odessa, Texas—one might say that it was timely. But there’s a sense in which a reflection on the hold that guns and gun rights have on American society is never not timely.

Wills’s piece this week ends with the observation that the Second Amendment worship that enables this cycle of death is akin to religious idolatry—taking us back to the mordant piece he wrote for the Daily on this theme in 2012, “Our Moloch,” in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting. It is a melancholy fact that, with every new mass shooting, we see an uptick in people sharing and reading that piece. […]

The distortion of “gun rights” has been a long-running theme [for Wills], dating back at least to a learned 1995 essay for the Review on the constitutional debate over the right to “bear arms.”

There, he explains that Madison granted the Second Amendment essentially as a compromise […] to win acceptance for the rest of his Bill of Rights. But in our email exchange this week, he offered an even darker interpretation of this compromise:

“I am now even more convinced that Madison added the Second Amendment under pressure from his Virginia foe Patrick Henry, who opposed the Constitution without protection for the militia as a slave-compelling power and for arsenals (‘keep and bear arms’) to store military resources against slave rebellions, a deep and constant fear in the South.”

Patrick Henry?? “Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry?

I really must clean out the rest of my 1950s grade-school version of American history. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!

More on Wills: He advocated “Distributism,” which he described as “against both unchecked capitalism and socialism, respecting property but distributing it.” (William Buckley told him that wasn’t conservative—too anticapitalist. Wills reportedly got the idea from the great conservative writer G. K. Chesterton.)

And he apparently advocates Warren:

[B]ack in 2015 he’d written a piece for the Daily urging Elizabeth Warren not to run. (His point there was that her best work was championing people’s interests against those of bankers and using her influence to pull Hillary Clinton further from the clutches of Wall Street.) But what about now?

“Warren was useful in the Senate before Trump. She is essential in the White House after Trump,” Wills said. “Who does the government work for?”

(I’d link to the newsletter, but it seems to exist only in inboxes.)


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Life without Facebook 3

September 6, 2019 at 6:43 pm (By Amba)

(The novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet. Besides, what better methadone for writing ON Facebook than writing ABOUT Facebook?)

From a comment on an earlier post:

BTW I looked at a few of the old posts here (circa 2010). I used to write a lot more coherently, and we’d have discussions in the comments like the ones we now have on Facebook, only more leisurely and substantive. Facebook has really done a chop job on our minds. It’s hard to say whether FB and Twitter have reflected the times, or shaped them.

I’m so fidgety, have such a hard time concentrating—saccades of the mind that were wired in by hopping back and forth to social media, keeping three conversations in the air, plates spinning … Now they are empty, or filled by reading the sparse responses to my blog posts. But the matrix is still there. How long will it take my mind to heal from this shattered concentration, for its moments to melt and fuse into larger units like drops of mercury?

Even so I feel much less mentally frenetic off social media, and time goes slower, so there’s more of it. I haven’t figured out how to structure and fill it yet; letting myself down into that space is like gingerly lowering oneself into a hot, or cold, bath. It’s a strong sensation, empty time. It exposes how afraid I am to do what I most want to do.

The frenetic feeling churned up by Facebook is kind of a false feeling of responsibility, like Chicken Little running around trying to hold up the sky. You feel like you’re part of, or participating in, something important, momentous, breathless. At the very least you’ve incurred an obligation to entertain your equally bored and twitchy friends.

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Two good articles

September 6, 2019 at 6:34 am (By Amba) (, )

about the promise hidden in American decline and fall.

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