Thursday, March 29, 2018

Leonid Kogan: Beethoven Violin Concerto (1966)

Leonid Kogan [1924–1982] and the Orchestre national de l’ORTF (since 1975 named Orchestre national de France), conducted by Louis de Froment, perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, opus 61, at Maison de la Radio’s Salle Olivier Messiaen, in Paris, France, in 1966. Ludwig van Beethoven completed this piece in 1806. Kogan, whose playing is beautiful, is among the many talented Jewish musicians that came out of the Former Soviet Union, which had a way of training musicians to achieve a rare combination of both technical and artistic virtuosity.
Via: Youtube

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Glenn Gould and J.S. Bach Concerto No. 7

Glenn Gould [1932–1982], with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, some time in the late 1950s, plays the Bach Harpsichord Concerto No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058, which Johann Sebastian Bach [1685–1750] completed in 1738. Gould is one of my favourite pianists and an individual I would have liked to meet; whatever particularities he had (and all of us have a few) are easily forgiven because of his musical abilities, which I consider as phenomenal and his intellectual ideas, which I consider as humane. Further thoughts on Glenn Herbert Gould, which have remained consistent and unchanged over the years, can be found [here].
Via: Youtube

Monday, March 19, 2018

Human Relationships

The Human Condition

“No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee....”

John Donne [1572–1631], Meditation 17
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

Young People’s Concerts (YPC) with young people in close proximity to Leonard Bernstein [1918–1990], conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein conducted a total of 53 YPC performances between 1958 and 1972—first at Carnegie Hall and then at Lincoln Center. There was an audience who were physically present, who were not facing the kind of distractions (chiefly from “social media) that young people today routinely face. As an educator, Bernstein has a engaging way with both his young audience and old audience alike. Music not only speaks a universal language; it brings people together. For a wonderful example, you can view the beginning of the first Bernstein YPC concert shown here; It is titled “What Does Music Mean?” (CBS-TV; on January 18, 1958), The full script can be read here. We need more shows like this today, notably if we as a society care about such things as sincerity, authenticity, imagination and intimacy, so lacking today in “new media” productions.

We are social beings, with a need to connect, to bond and to form relationships with each other. “No Man is an Island,” John Donne, the 17th century metaphysical poet, reminds us in his famous piece of prose turned into a poem; and I am here bringing this down to its most essential meaning to raise a point, an issue, that is important to all of us, in that we are all human and want what all humans want. Or at least we start out that way as children; and over time things fall apart.

Persons who are isolated, who are alienated from society, who are outside of social circles, and who have the inability to form relationships with others suffer immensely as a result. When such persons, by reasons of innate personality or illness or experiential circumstances, do not or can not form human relationships, they suffer loneliness, alienation and social anxiety. The pain of exclusion is real, and there are tangible consequences. This is no doubt tragic, since this is what humans are meant to do, what is among the primary purpose of all humans.

So, in pursuit of this, many enter a space that is not really a space in the physical sense or in any measurable way or in any real way; and this “space” is given a nice-sounding name: “social media,” which is what it is named, because it contains the promise of being social, to connect with others, of sociability. This is or becomes the only or the main means that many people today have with the outside world, even though it is as unreal as unreal can be, as lacking in any form of human connectedness as one could or would expect with being in a non-existent space.

Many, particularly the young, argue that it does exist. If so, consider the following questions about the 15-year social experiment that claims the whole world as its laboratory: Is this the best that humans can offer humanity? Is this necessarily good?  Has it actually made persons less sociable? less willing to be sincere, open, honest, authentic? Has it actually made too many people more hostile, fearful and angry? Sufficient anecdotal evidence says that this is so; science might eventually confirm this, although I do not see this happening soon. 

Yet, for many it has to do for now, either because of low expectations or because that is all they know, a result of long-term conditioning, where social media acts as a replacement for intimate friendship, intimate relationships, intimate talks and discussions. When you think about it, you conclude that this, “social media,” is but a poor replacement. Even this blog is only a blog, written from my 6th floor apartment in Toronto, which in no way can replace the contact that humans need and find essential to their well-being.

Human relationships require physical proximity, they require time, they require sincerity, they require nurturing. Yet, some, probably more than some, have only the counterfeit, it appearing genuine in people’s minds. Yet, it must be said that the counterfeit, no matter how it appears, is only that which it is. It is a cheap forgery, poorly imagined and poorly constructed, bereft of authenticity. If such is the case, and I have no doubt that it is, then “social media” cannot meet the normal expectation of human relationships. Its purpose is outside of this realm.

Yet, it starts early, this entering of an unreal space for many children, through online games and video games, many of them violent, which has replaced the real world of play and imagination with very real-world consequences, including social alienation and social isolation (see “Was Your Childhood Happy?; November 18, 2013). As a parent, I tried to play some of the online games my older son plays, but I found these too violent. It was not possible for me to play for more than a few minutes.

Social media, of which I was a willing participant for some time, suffers from a similar problem; not surprising, I have found it wanting of late. So, it is now natural and normal for me to say, “No, I do not think or believe that this is the best that humans can offer.” Far from it, especially if you consider what existed before and which now does not much exist for free public viewing, such as the Young People’s Concerts. In the Age of Social Media, there has been a “progression” to mediocrity, narcissism, and vulgarity. I am not sure if this is what the public wants, but it is what it gets.

Seeing this reality, some have decided to do something about it. In other words, throw out the forgery and look to obtain the real item. Or simply put, forget social media altogether (e.g., I closed all of my accounts; this blog remains open for now), viewing it as a unnecessary and tiring effort with no reward or benefit of personal relationships of any type. Now, having done this recently, I can happily say that this is a worthwhile endeavor on the journey for meaning and purpose. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Pink Floyd: Time (1988)

Tempus Fugit

Truth was the only daughter of Time.

Leonardo da Vinci [1452–1519], Maxim 1152. 
The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci
XIX Philosophical Maxims. Morals. 
Polemics and Speculations (1883); 
Trans. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter 

Pink Floyd perform “Time” at  Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, on August 19, 1988, where the British band performed for five nights. Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time/Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.
Via: Youtube

“Time” is found (side 3; track 2) on the band's first live album, Delicate Sound of Thunder, a double LP released on November 22, 1988. This was during a period, in the 1970s and ’80s, when rock concerts were theatrical extravaganzas and there were elements of showmanship and musicianship. In other words, there was a show put on for the audience, whose expectations were met.

The song dates to the 1970s, originally on the band’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) studio album (track no. 4), the album that everyone knows about, the one with the cover art of light going through a glass prism and producing six colors (indigo is missing) of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye (wavelengths of 380 nanometres to 700 nanometres); the art was produced by Hipgnosis and George Hardie.

Time does undoubtedly slip away, it does seem to fly away. Before you know it you are 60 years of age, listening to the songs of your youth, not looking to such songs for any deeper meaning but finding in them some brief moments of musical enjoyment. This enjoyment might not only be in listening to the song, but also in the memory of listening to the song years ago, when I was a younger self.

At a time when I viewed the world in a different way than I do now, as only the young can and, perhaps, as one can argue, ought to. Youth, after all, is for the young, with their youthful dreams and aspirations. Time does eventually reveal some truths, ones that youth can never apprehend, not that they can at this age. Not until they mature, get older and their dreams fade away. Then they begin to know and understand the world around them in a different way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Human Dignity

The Human Heart

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.”
Genesis 1:27

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
Psalm 8:4

Last week’s post was on human pride; this week I would like to expound a little on human dignity. Although the former is often used to describe the latter by our culture, I now view it as a mistake in understanding that has led to so much confusion and the making of misery and mischief in our world. There is after all a real theological difference between human pride and human dignity.

In Psalm 8, in one of the most famous passages in the Bible, David the Psalmist puts a question to the relationship between Man and God, which eventually happens to everyone who wants to know his place and purpose on earth. (The “son of man” is a biblical phrase that refers to the descendants of Adam, which means every single soul on earth.) The Bible, if you read it, is primarily about Man’s relationship to God; and the Bible, if you read it and read it with careful consideration and study it, answers the psalmist question. Yes, Life is fairer to some; and some are more “blessed” than others. 

This is where dignity faces trials and tribulations. Dignity is something that God confers on all humans, and thus it comes from outside—it speaks of the worthiness of all people, of all men and women. If you believe this to be true, and countless man and women around the world do, then no one or no situation can take away your dignity, since it does not come from acquisition of power, of wealth, or of fame, nor does it come from acquisition of academic degrees, of accomplishments, or of youthfulness and usefulness, etc.

Such values, be what they may, are promoted by and co-exist with the ideas of self-achievement and self-fulfillment contained in the secular doctrine known as the pursuit of happiness, which, no doubt, is prominent today. Such a pursuit might give you many experiences, and it might make you successful in some sense, but it is unlikely to give you meaning or an understanding of human dignity. In Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946, Viktor E. Frankl writes about the dangers of such a shallow worldview:
But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer.
Dignity, the Bible tells us, comes from God, since we are created “in His own image,” as we read early in the Genesis account.  Yet, as astounding as this passage is, for some, acquisition is everything and much more important than dignity. Even so, the deeper you dig into the Bible, the greater becomes your acceptance, understanding and importance of dignity. This is heady stuff, and not easy to accept, since the countervailing and chief message from the time that you are little is that “You have to earn it.”

When this becomes or is the motto of how to live, and again, there are many people who live by such maxims, then it is easy for your pride to be hurt, to be wounded, and for resentment and anger to build and take over your thought life. This is the arena of the competitive, where every slight, hurt, insult and snub need be challenged in some way or fashion. Where the self has to not only be defended but also to be raised up. Is this not a never-ending battle? What or who is one really defending?

That there is always something to do, to earn; that you have to continue to strive to earn the right to exist, to be considered “useful,” at least with your fellow man who can be (and is often is) a harsh and unforgiving judge. One result is that violence can then easily and quickly build in the heart, especially if a thought lodges in the mind that you are “never good enough.” Or that others are not good enough, or not necessary or not useful. It is then but a short step to acts of inhumanity, writes Francis A. Schaeffer in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1983):
If man is not made in the image of God, nothing then stands in the way of inhumanity. There is no good reason why mankind should be perceived as special. Human life is cheapened. We can see this in many of the major issues being debated in our society today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, the increase of child abuse and violence of all kinds, pornography ... , the routine torture of political prisoners in many parts of the world, the crime explosion, and the random violence which surrounds us.
This is an excellent analysis of the human condition; it does not explain everything, but it explains enough of what happens when human dignity is debased and human life is cheapened and made of no value. From there it is a downward spiral to the competitive arena of the proud; and in the absence of human dignity, all that is left is the running of a never-ending and tiring competitive race that no one wins, that no one can ever win. Even the “winners” do not win; in the end they lose.

This is, however, completely unnecessary. There is a different path, clear and straight, which leads to new ways of understanding, apprehending and of being, which leads to the idea that you are, indeed, “good enough,” that you are worthy and valuable. You come out of it not tired, but refreshed and full of life. You can then take heart in this small consolation: Unless you give it away, dignity is yours for life. Frankl writes: “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Beverly Hillbillies: His Royal Highness (1967)

American Comedy

The Beverly Hillbillies: “His Royal Highness,“ which aired on March 8, 1967. This was S5E25 or the 163rd episode of 274 episodes that were produced. The show was created by Paul Henning.

The Beverly Hillbillies is an American sitcom that aired on CBS-TV from September 26, 1962 to March 23, 1971—for nine seasons. The comedy show focuses on the Clampetts—Jed (Buddy Ebsen), Granny (Irene Ryan), Jethro (Max Baer Jr) and Elly Mae (Donna Douglas)—a poor family from the Ozarks (Missouri) who move to Beverly Hills, California, after striking oil on their land.

While living in a big mansion, they, “the hillbillies,” continue to act as they did before “striking it rich,” which confuses the well-heeled folks of Beverly Hills. They, led by their banker neighbor, Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Thomas Bailey), try their darnedest to encourage the hillbillies to conform to the “big-city” values they hold so dear. These efforts, made with such a purpose, always end up in failure; the comedy speaks about the incongruity of values.

Without failure, such makes the show funny, and week after week, without being preachy, there is a recurring message: how the pretensions of wealth are deflated or burst by the simple common folk, the Clampetts. This family from the Ozarks, although by the standards of their neighbors are eccentric, are not only unpretentious but also earnest, wise and dignified. They are comfortable in their skins, and because they are, become a foil (or is it a boil?) to those who are not.

This is all presented as good-natured humor, holding up remarkably well 50 years later. I can still recall the words to the theme song, composed by Paul Henning and sung by Jerry Scoggins with the banjo accompaniment of bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed/A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed/And then one day he was shootin’ at some food/And up through the ground come a bubblin’ crude.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Human Pride & False Humility

The Human Condition

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Proverbs 16:18

In the realm of human behaviour, human understanding, and human failings, in the history of western civilization pride has long been called the greatest of sins, and it is viewed this way by those who take the long view, who by experience, observation and understanding come to see it this way, not bypassing reason or the historical record. In the compulsive pursuit of money and power, pride is a constant companion.

For example, C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (1952) writes:
It is Pride–the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy. (108)
Nowhere are enemies more readily and easily made than in the political arena. In this stage of the powerful, pride takes on a particular role. The politician preens for the cameras, at times with mock outrage, at times with mock sadness, finding himself caught up in his own performance, having long lost his sense of duty and responsibility—having actually denied its validity and importance. When pride takes on such a form that only the self is venerated, the spectacle is miserable to behold.

This, alas, plays out daily to predictable results. The pursuit of power is a never-ending one, the appetite for it, once whetted, never satisfied or satiated. A proud man can never feel satisfied or a sense of accomplishment, especially in the presence of other proud men. It is more than likely that such men would find each other’s company, and in no way pleasant, in the lower levels of Dante’s nine concentric circles that form his view of Inferno (or Hell), part of his trilogy that includes Purgatorio (Purgatoryand Paradiso (Paradise).

I would recommend that everyone read all of the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), if only to understand a Christian point of view of crime, punishment, justice and redemption. It is important not to focus only on Inferno but to also read till the concluding canto of Paradiso, the last of the 14,233 lines that make up the narrative. Contained within its words, there is beauty and joy, a counterpoint to power and pride and its many forms.

Which raises the idea of false humility, sometimes found among the outwardly religious or pious who have been placed in positions of leadership. Its purpose is similar to that of pride, chiefly, to draw attention to the person, to show how humble he is, when in reality his is a desire for attention and praise and flattery. He is far from the ideal, finding the right balance between superiority and inferiority, if it is to be reached, in not discussing (or raising up) self at all.

Few, it appears, can achieve this state of being, which is not to say that this is not a laudable goal worthy of a lifetime of pursuit; any gain is a good and worthy one. This pursuit, so to speak, is one that is beyond a person’s natural abilities, beyond a person making a conscious effort. Such is what Rabbi Louis Jacobs [1920–2006] writes in “Humility in Judaism,” excerpted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion (1995):
On the deeper level, the notion is found, especially in Hasidism, that humility is not the mere absence of pride. Rather it consists not so much in thinking little of oneself as in not thinking of oneself at all. When the Hasidim and other Jewish mystics speak of annihilation of selfhood, they are not thinking of a conscious effort of the will. To try to nullify the self by calling attention to it is bound to end in failure. Instead, the mystics tend to suggest, the mind should be encouraged to overlook entirely all considerations of both inferiority and superiority.
What a wonderful and edifying thought. A healthy self-respect combined with a healthy respect for others, including those in authority, leads to the right balance of forces that drive humans one way or another. It is neither desirable to think yourself better than others, nor is desirable to debase yourself lower than others. A society, group, people or nation that lives like this, seeing themselves as superior and others are inferior, is not only a pride-filled one, but also an immoral one.

Such brings me to the idea of dignity, and explains one of the differences between dignity and pride; the latter is about competition and power and looking down on others, the former about a healthy respect, both for self and for others, and seeing a worthiness in all, because they are made in the image of God. Dignity brings people together; pride tears people apart. This explains why Proverbs puts pride and destruction in the same sentence.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Loreena McKennitt: Dante’s Prayer

Loreena McKennitt: Dante’s Prayer, the last track on The Book of Secrets, released in 1997.  A secret is something hidden until it is revealed; then it is known.
Via: Youtube

This song is inspired by the Divina Commedia, a long narrative poem in Italian that Dante Alighieri [1265–1321] wrote between 1308 and 1320. It tells the story of Human Redemption from a Christian  point of view. It was more than 20 years ago that I read over the summer of 1995, and not for any academic course or credit but for the pursuit of understanding and knowledge, Dante’s Divine Comedy—all three books (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise)—in a commendable and masterful translation initiated by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1949 and completed by Barbara Reynolds in 1962. This is one of those classics of literature that I recommend everyone ought to read, if only to apprehend the world in which we live, breathe and move.