Thursday, June 24, 2004

General Mills

So, having finally taken the measure of Mills's Power Elite I can now say that I was not mistaken in my premonition of just under three weeks ago that it would induce in me a fit of a peculiar sort of plus ca changism. Of course, though, to say that my reading of the book ended up making me feel exactly as I had expected it would is not at all to say that I learned nothing from it; and in fact I learned a great deal. But before explaining what it was I learned (and in order to explain it) I should perhaps first give the reader some sense of the plus ca changeism I'm talking about as against the ordinary garden-variety plus ca changism that consists in the simple recognition of the past in the present or vice versa. I learned a great deal less, mind you, about the world the book purported to describe than about the world that preceded it and the world of the present. Received plus-ca-changeist wisdom about the 60s is concerned with debunking the myth of the 50s as the golden age of the nuclear family, the era of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, et cetera et ad nauseum; it is in other words, presentist in its polemical slant. "We may think of the 50s as the 'Good old days,' the conventional plus-ca-changeist "but statistics show that the rate of out-of-wedlock births was as high as/nearly as high as/ higher than it is today." But my form of plus-ca-changeism takes the following form: "We may think of the 50s as the good old days but it's shocking to discover how bad they already were--how far back the badness of the present extends, and how much of a fall civilization had already taken by then." Now, if my plus ca changeism had turned out to be of the familiar plus la meme chose kind, you would expect me to be saying here that what I learned was that things have more or less always been as bad as they are now, I'd be taking the line that this book was a wake-up call to all those who would idealize the 50s . But my plus-ca-changeism was a different variety: the more you think things have changed for the worse recently, the further back in time "recently" turns out to be.

Mills himself, for all of his relative youth, seems to be a man of an earlier epoch: "In America, [the celebrity] system is carried to the point where a man who can knock a small white ball into a hole in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains access to the President of the United States."

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sunday, June 06, 2004


I've just become acquainted with Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten courtesy of Kultur's video of the Stuttgart Opera's production from 1989. Before my viewing I reflected on something Adorno had said with typically Adornonian heavyhandedness in his 1969 essay "Opera and the Long-Playing Record": "It has been more than thirty years since any operas have been written for opera houses that--if one is allowed to insist on such high standards--manifested something of world spirit [Weltgeist]." Now, as the premiere of Die Soldaten had taken place in 1965, and Adorno had almost surely at least heard of it, I wondered whether he was lumping in Zimmermann's opus in with these latter-day Weltgeist-benighted operas. I can now only guess that he was. Yes, at the level of compositional technique Die Soldaten seemed to be modern enough, at least to my my relatively unschooled ears, inasmuch as I noticed passages that obviously showed the imprint of Webern (passages in which, for example, a woodwind solo phrase would be followed by a col legno ensemble string phrase bearing no obvious resemblance to it in melody or phrasing). But practically from curtain rise to curtain fall the Weltgeist remained elusively out of reach. Adorno would of course have forbidden himself the use of that "almost," as for him the notion of a partially-Weltgeist-manifesting work was as nonsensical as the notion of a partially-haunted house. But as for my part I think an "almost" is not amiss in this case, I should probably explain what I understand Weltgest-affirmation to consist in, in case my understand of it diverges from Adorno's. For me, a good rule of thumb for testing whether a work is in touch with the Weltgeist is to ask whether it has transformed my picture of the epoch [Zeitbild] that engendered it or merely reaffirmed my already-extant picture of that epoch. In saying this, I should not be misconstrued as claiming that if a work makes use of or is partially constituted by the stereotypical motifs of its epoch we should assume that it fails to manifest the Weltgeist. One of Die Soldaten's boosters--I can no longer who, blamed the infrequency of its productions on its distinctly 1960s character. But this bit of reportage hardly sufficed to persuade me to write off Die Soldaten in advance as being out of touch with the Weltgeist, as I know only too well how often people mistake the most trivial and inconsequential elements of a work for its most essential elements, so that a work dating from the 1960s need make only the most fleeting reference to LSD or the Beatles in order to qaulify as a product very much of its time--meaning a work merely of its time. In fact there are very few such stereotypical flags of the 60s in Die Soldaten. Nonetheless in a more than superficial way, Die Soldaten is a product of its time.

At first, I thought it might turn out otherwise--and in this expectation inheres my qualifying "almost"--for the visual and aural spectacle that commenced with the rising of the curtain was like nothing I had ever heard or seen before. Peter Quantrill, in his MW review of the DVD of this production, describes Zimmermann's overture or prelude as a "five-minute orchestral pile-up that summarises and seems to reject all the music written before it." More disturbing for me than the music itself, though, was the choreography that it accompanied: at the commencement of the opening bars, the cast, numbering in the dozens and assembled en masse on the two-tiered stage, stood or sat fixed in waxwork-like attitudes; gradually, as the music progressed the figures were disturbed by its irregular, unpredictable rhythm, first only mildly and in unison, as though actuacted by the movement of a wildly erratic clockwork mechanism; and eventually jerkily, convulsively, and in chaos, as though each of them was being jolted by a sporadically administered electrical shock. Above all else what made this ballet mechanique so disturbing for me was that I didn't know when it would end--the thought that these figures could go on behaving in this way indefinitely without betraying the slightest trace of any recognizably human quality was downright horrifying. (Admittedly this was not an effect that could be reproduced in subseuqent viewings.) Inasmuch as this pantomime constituted an "advance"--if such it can be called--on the merely depersonalized characterization of expressionism, the form of characterization exhibited in Wozzeck and Lulu while resonating with none of my poetic stereotypes of the 60s, for its duration Die Soldaten appeared to to me to be in touch with the Weltgeist. That all changed with the commencement of the first scene proper. Now, throughout the prelude, which had ended with everyone collapsing into some sort of mass coma, the only figures exempt from participation in the pantomime had been those of Marie and Charlotte, who remained frozen at the center of the lower stage; now with the sounding of the first chord (at least I think it was a chord) of the first scene they sprang into life--albeit only with what little life was required for a fairly static scene centering around the composition of a letter. The first bit of dialogue, an aria given over entirely to lugubrious metaphysical speculation, came from Charlotte. The following line is characteristic of the whole: "If man knew what was to be found at the depths of his heart he'd wish he'd never had one." A powerful beginning--the only trouble is, it's not to be found at the corresponding point in the text of the play by J. M .R. Lenz that serves as the basis for Zimmermann's libretto. I don't know if Zimmermann transplanted this bit of dialogue from some other place in Lenz's writings or whether he composed it himself. I lean towards thinking he composed it himself, as the notion that something might be concealed in the depths of the heart seems intrinsically psychoanalytic in character. Such forced anachronism would certainly be in keeping with Zimmermann's practice throughout the opera. Not that at any other point he tampers so conspicuously with the dialogue or the action, save in one critical part of the last scene; for the most part, indeed, Zimmermann follows the Bergian precedent of using dialogue drawn verbatim from the original play in relation to which the libretto thus stands as an abridgement rather than an adaptation. No, most of Zimmermann's tamperings take a form that would go unnoticed by someone who was encountering this work for the first time blindfolded, courtesy, say, of the Telarc CD release of this production. It is, in fact, in his staging of the play that Zimmerman most evidently capitulates to the stereotypically 60s.


Wednesday, June 02, 2004


The heading of that last (and, in this unique instance, first) posting was misleading. True, I was thumbing through C. Wright Mills's Power Elite yesterday, but I haven't yet read enough of it to say anything remotely well-informed about it. Whatever I learn from it I suspect it'll induce in me an attack of plus-ça-change-ism (a specific form of plus-ça-change-ism whose character I may perhaps elaborate later in connection with my better-informed account of the book).

C. Wright Mills