Friday, January 30, 2009

The Future of Modernity

Divine, not human, law rings down the curtain (so to speak) on the short happy life of Don Giovanni, so beautifully celebrated in Mozart's opera of 1787 (the last possible moment, perhaps, for such an opera on such a theme). In the real world of the 18th century a man like the Don would not have been able to compile anything like the numbers so happily reeled off by Leporello, the rule of law--civil law--having been pretty well established in Europe despite some deplorable lapses for I don't know how long--seven or eight hundred years at least.

The French Revolution added something new to the European mix of civil and canon law, ideology, a word coined by Napoleon in a brilliant insight: he had seen ideologues in action and knew what they were doing before he had a name for it. An ideology
is a system of theories and ideas that is used to justify, or seize, political power. It is fitting that this word should have appeared just at the time when the heretofore apolitical and therefore invisible masses of ordinary people were beginning to be a factor and more than that, a force, in the politics of nations. The advent of that force changed everything, especially for those who happen to be politically ambitious. If you want to succeed in politics nowadays (no doubt this has always been the case) you have to know how to lead people by the nose, for there really is no other way. Therefore you need a hook. Money is efficacious but money talks and it never knows when to shut up; utility is philosophically and ethically appealing but it's too abstract and most people only want to know what you can for them rightnow ; the best hooks of all are baited with ideals which make you feel morally heroic while incidentally advancing the interests of your family, friends and followers. And so the modern ideological political party was born. The 20th century has been called the Age of Ideology and it came within an ace of blowing us up.

So now we've got another chance, and because the balance of nature is inexorably turning against us, driven by the by-products of our technological and economic ingenuity--carbon-dioxide, methane and other gases--we probably won't get another.

Another chance for what? To establish the rule of law, not ideology. And I have to say the prospects don't look good. I'm not talking about nations where the rule of law and due process is fairly well established but about those, the majority, where the rule of law is still a new idea and is usually trumped by ideology or religion-- Iran for example, or the nations of Africa. Or countries like Russia and China, still emerging from their own ideologically driven disasters.

Consider the modern state of Israel, where the rule of law is consistently trumped by religious orthodoxy--as elsewhere in that part of the world; Judaism, like Islam it seems, has never been able to entirely accept the modern secular state. So now, unwillingly complicitous, we are forced to stand by helplessly as the courts of Israel wilt, despicably, before a mob of religious zealots bent on grabbing the last remaining scraps of Palestinian land. And what is the nature of their claim? A collection of ancient stories containing a deed signed, say the authors of these stories, by God. And that's it. And for this the entire region and not only the region but the world has been driven mad, and all of us threatened by nuclear jihad.

It's a poor outlook for the rule of law and the world.

(If you want to hear the sort of thing that Israel's apologists are willing to say, read the following comment.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Don Giovanni, Heroic Sinner (2)

Don Giovanni is a bad man who comes to a bad end but so what? Does it follow that Mozart's Don Giovanni is also bad? And not only bad but immoral since it sugars over its own badness by giving this bad man such gorgeous music to sing?

If your answer to these questions is 'yes', I have nothing more to say--to you.

These are good questions; they force us to examine our esthetic assumptions. If art as Aristotle says is an imitation of life, what purpose does this process of imitation serve? If there are good and bad imitations, and there must be, how are they good and how are they bad? If art as Matthew Arnold says is a criticism of life, what does that mean? If there are good and bad criticisms, and there must be, what does their goodness or badness consist of? What should we make of Duke Ellington's terse formulation, "if it sounds good, it is good"? Can you have bad art about good people and good art about bad people? Suppose you have a work of art of some sort, either a criticism or imitation of life, or both, that serves no social purpose that you can imagine, or in Bentham's terms looks as if it might diminish utility, can it be good nevertheless? Getting down to cases, do the sights and sounds of an unrepentant, gutsy and still living Don Giovanni being hauled off to hell increase or diminish social utility? Does anyone care? Anyone, that is, besides a moralistic few.

Let's try thinking about Don Giovanni as a criticism of life, specifically the lives of the nobility in the late 18th century, or rather a subset of the nobility, its young men who had been trained since birth to think of themselves as a warrior aristocracy whose primary virtue is courage. It is by courage in battle that such an aristocracy justifies its privileges. By 1787, the social utility of that warrior class has diminished to zero. As a young man, Don Giovanni has no other use for his considerable energy and charm but seduction which he is astonishingly good at. Indeed, his sexual potency seems virtually superhuman--Kierkegaard calls him demonic, and godlike in this respect, and if you remember the myths collected by Ovid in the Metamorphoses you'll know what he means. But where, now, is the life this man used to lead? That's all in the past; this opera is about the present, and life in the present is full of complications. For Don Giovanni's past, as the past has a way of doing, has caught up with him. The effect is comic not tragic. Leporello remarks at one point that Donna Anna and Donna Elivira talk like people in novels. The novel was and is a middle-class art form. It is funny to think of the Don and Leporello trapped in a bourgeois melodrama, which is what happens. And not only trapped but defeated: the commoners, Zerlina and Masetto (like Susanna and Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro) triumph over the noble lord--while the music, on the other hand, celebrates his energy and charm. Don Giovanni remains the hero even as he is losing the game. In this opera, you have to be able to hold contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time.

Doomed Don Giovanni's unrepentant courage in the face of certain damnation is his redeeming virtue. Or so it seems to me, now, with nothing to fear myself from an angry god. It was not, perhaps, quite so easy, in 1787, to admire the courage of Don Giovanni as he is being dragged down to hell. Such courage was not unprecedented however. In the previous century, one of John Dryden's heroic characters had had this to say, defiantly, on his way out: "Not God himself o'er the past has power/ But what has been has been and I have had my hour." And Milton, as Blake had brilliantly noticed, had been "of the devil's party without knowing it"--though, I would say for my part that Milton knew very well what he was doing when he made the poetry of his rebellious Satan so much more interesting, powerful and beautiful than the flat-footed, self-righteous arguments of God.

Whatever we may think about it now, Mozart's opera was certainly relevant, in a complicated sort of way, to the convulsive stirrings of the late 18th century. Men of Don Giovanni's class, in France, were headed for the guillotine if not for hell because they'd ended up on the wrong side of history. (This sounds stupid but I can't think of a better way of putting it.) They were not all heartless libertines. Centuries of aristocratic culture were about to be put to the sword, so to speak. It is possible to think of Mozart's opera as a semi-comic requiem for a doomed world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Don Giovanni, Heroic Sinner

Mozart took Moliere's Don Juan, who is not much more than a gentlemanly thug, and turned him into something new: an immoral man, a wicked man who is nevertheless a man of courage and charm, a human mephistopheles who insists on being true to himself and living life on his own terms and becomes thereby so offensive to Heaven that he is hauled off to Hell while he is still alive and kicking, still stoically and heroically unrepentant, still glamorous--and still therefore an affront to moralists. I read somewhere that Beethoven was shocked and that surprised me.

Mozart's opera makes hash of our moral categories, and this we may think is what great art ought to do. That, however, is a modern idea; no classical artist or thinker would or could have said or even thought such a thing; it is also a romantic idea: Don Giovanni was first presented in 1787 just at the beginning of the modern romantic era, and just before France revolted against the ancient regime of power and privilege that had sustained the legend of Don Juan.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Original Sin and Modernity

As we think about the meaning, or meanings, of ‘modernity’, it may be useful to remember the religious revolutions ignited by Luther and Calvin in the 16th century, as the well as the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler in astronomy and physics. Luther and Calvin did as much to shape the modern world as those great scientists and their intellectual heirs.

Original Sin was one of the ideas that made the writings of Luther and Calvin particularly explosive. They did not invent the idea that human nature is fundamentally and inherently depraved as a consequence of Adam’s (and Eve’s) fall from grace; following the lead of Saint Augustine in the 5th century AD, they found it (so to speak) in one of the letters of Paul, Romans 5:12-31 as part of their program of reformation i.e. reclaiming the original purity of Christianity from the corruptions with which the original Church had become encrusted by centuries of Papal venality--and worse.

During the last 500 years, modern science triumphed over fundamentalist accounts of creation because of its vast explanatory power. But if you are looking for explanatory power, it’s hard to beat Original Sin. Why does human history consist of one war after another? Why does power corrupt? Why does every revolution replace one set of scoundrels with another? Why is the dream of world government and world peace just that, a sentimental dream that could never be realized? Human beings are a bad lot and they can’t help it; they’re just born that way. Maybe its congenital.

I don’t put much stock in the theory of original sin myself--for one thing it seems to entail the horrific and morally unacceptable doctrine of infant damnation. But there are times, and this is one of them as we watch the collapse of yet one more Ponzi bubble, and a deflating world economy, when the doctrine of Original Sin just seems to make a lot of sense.

But you have to choose. None of the things that modernity is all about--democracy, free markets, free inquiry, the freedoms we take for granted (in our Bill of Rights for example), romantic poetry, music, and art--would be possible in a Calvinistic state.

Here's an idea worth thinking about. The doctrine of original sin began lose its hold over the modern i.e. European and American imagination some time around 1800. Rousseau and romanticism had invented the notion of original innocence. The Machiavellian facts that original sin had accounted for did not go away, however. It was at about this time that an ancient word and idea, 'cynic' and cynicism, got dusted off and given a new, modern meaning: not the ancient belief that virtue is the only good, but the reverse: a disbelief in the very possibility of disinterested motives or virtuous actions.

In case you're interested, here is the material from Romans (in the King James text of 1611) that Augustine used to support his claim that evil first entered the world with the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. 16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 17 For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus
Christ our Lord.