Jan 162014

This letter was written to the NYRB in response to Michael Hofmann’s recent review of The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus (translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann):


Early in his review of The Kraus Project, Michael Hofmann observes that “most of Kraus’s writing was ad hominem.” My initial, naive assumption was that Hofmann intended this as a criticism. But it appears instead to be an acknowledgment of common ground, as he goes on to inform us that Kraus was a hypocrite (“Is he the wretched, off-the-peg French-hater in ‘Heine and the Consequences’ or the much-garlanded visitor to Paris fifteen years later, suspicious of Prussia now, and happy to be proposed for the Nobel Prize by nine professors at the Sorbonne?”), a litigious bully, a dictatorial snob (“Kraus is writing to enforce—to inflict, I would almost say—his authority on randomly chosen terrain, along the lines of ‘the very popular is very bad, the popular is very good, only for reasons you need me to understand'”) and most damningly, a self-hating Jew guilty of “dog-whistle anti-semitism of the foulest kind.”

If this has an oddly familiar ring, it may be because it is more or less the same indictment leveled by Walter Kaufmann in a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1973; and even then—as Erich Heller wrote in his lucid response to Kaufmann, still probably the best rebuttal of the charges raised here—it was “not so ‘recent’ that it [did] not tediously repeat arguments that are as old as the shocks of the first readers of Die Fackel.” But what is more troubling than this familiar litany of complaints, is Hofmann’s blithe assurance that they release us from any troublesome obligation to take Kraus seriously, allowing us instead to substitute the free play of elegantly expressed contempt for actual criticism:

It was suggested in 1976, and again in 1986, by Karl Kraus’s early torch-bearer in English, Harry Zohn, and by others at other times, before and since, and probably in between as well, that there is a particular timeliness about the work of this Viennese Jewish writer, who was born in Bohemia in 1874 and died in Vienna in 1936. […] As for “Kraus’s timeliness,” just when was it? Was it 1900, the year after he started his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch)? Or 1910, when he phased out other contributors…Or 1920, when his “vibrant pacifism” would have had, as the Germans say, Hochkonjunktur —a boom? Or 1930, when he was shading into irrelevance and repetitiousness (again)?

One possible answer to this question is that a writer may have something important to say to us now, and still have something important to say to us a decade later. It is suggested with remarkable frequency that Shakespeare, Goethe, and indeed Heine are “timely” as well, and these claims are not usually treated as prima facie absurd or mutually contradictory. And after all, the source of Kraus’s continued relevance is not such a mysterious thing: he was not a “helpless priest of language,” as Hofmann puts it, but its custodian, fanatically alert to its distortion by journalistic mendacity, political and bureaucratic double-speak, and the self-perpetuating jargon of ideologues. His great subject, then, was the tragedy of language’s corruption by power, reflected in his aphoristic remark, with its paradoxical evocation of Faust, that “he who encourages deeds with words desecrates both word and deed and is doubly despicable.” This passage, from his anguished protest in Die Fackel against the outbreak of the First World War, epitomizes the true Krausian aphorism: not an arbitrary witticism surrounded by laborious waffling, as Hoffman would have it, but a flash of insight that emerges with seeming inevitability from the surrounding argument, crystallizing its import and driving it home with terrific force.

Kraus’s concern for language was thus always a passionately moral one. In his role as scourge of the press, he defended prostitutes against the hypocritical censure of the Viennese, striking out at newspapers that condemned prostitution in print while advertising for “escort services” in their own back pages. As a critic of psychoanalysis, he lambasted the psychiatrists’ collusion with the state in horrifying abuses of individual freedom. In each case, what he found most terrible was the ease with which language could be made to paper over atrocity. This is not a unique insight—it is at least as old as Thucydides’ description of the civil war in Corcyra, and is of course found in Orwell—but Kraus was perhaps the single person most possessed by it, and he pursued its implications with remarkable (and frightening) tenacity. It is this, rather than his status as some kind of shadowy influence-broker, that accounts for the esteem in which he was held. It is true that this is not fundamentally a “literary” insight, and in this sense Hofmann is correct to say that Kraus’ place is not in the history of literature. But why should this count against him? Kraus’ Vienna produced not only Hofmann’s favored triumvirate of “Artur Schnitzler in drama, Georg Trakl in poetry, [and] Robert Musil in epic prose,” who had little use for Kraus, but also Adolf Loos in architecture, Arnold Schoenberg in music, and Ludwig Wittgen­stein in philosophy, all of whom admired him deeply (if not without reservations.) The works of Schoenberg and Wittgenstein, at least, would have assumed a vastly different form without him, which is to say that much of music and philosophy in the twentieth century would have as well. For a man who belongs “in the history of aggression, Publizistik, boosterism, feuding, polemics, [and] PR,” and whose intellectual milieu was a “pissing contest,” this is a rather impressive accomplishment. I can only conclude that we need more such pissing contests.

What is at issue here, in any case, is something more important than Kraus’ “historical” importance, however broadly or narrowly construed. Does it even need to be said that the abuses of language against which he protested have only multiplied over the intervening century? We spend each day amidst a welter of comfort­able phrases—examples of which most of us could easily cull, according to our political persuasion, from the dialects of the military, politics, advertising, business, journalism, academia, or countless other sources—that conceal and beautify realities which, if we confronted them directly, we would find unbearable to look upon. The question, then, is not why Kraus is timely, but how, in the foreseeable future, he could possibly stop being so.


Feb 082011

I remember the sense of shock that I felt upon hearing of Milton Babbitt’s death last Saturday. He was a very old man, and had been ill for a long time; so why should I have been shocked? Perhaps it is because of my memory of the last time that I saw him, about two years ago. He was frail and in obvious discomfort, but the as­tonishing vitality of his wit, imagination and intellect was undiminished. It is strange now to imagine that it is gone.

I studied with Milton for two years, which were also his last as a teacher. Yet at the end of this time, I was the same overawed young man I had been when I first walked into his office. I admired and liked him, and I think he liked me; but rarely did I ever feel that I had reached beneath that formidable layer of brilliance and erudition that he wore about himself. There is a certain kind of awe that precludes real intimacy.

I write this, therefore, with the acute awareness that there are many who are more qualified than I to commemorate Milton — witness, for example, David Rakowski’s touching appreciation of him here. For the present, I wish simply to offer a few of my recollections from the time that I spent studying with him, and to consider what these reflections might mean for our understanding of him as a composer and public figure. His reputation, after all, has been a contentious one, and I see no way to easily divorce my private memories of the man from a consideration of the complicated role that he has played in our intellectual history. In fact, it is in honoring Milton as an individual that we can best correct the distorted picture that has often been drawn of him.

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Nov 262010

David Goldman, also known by the pseudonym Spengler, recently wrote an intriguing essay called “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music“. I found it to be an insightful and stimulating read — so stimulating, in fact, that I expended the bulk of my morning penning a response to this article, outlining the points on which I disagree with him. Following is the text of that response:

As a composer who has maintained an ambivalent passion for Wagner’s music for much of my adult life, I felt a strange shock of recognition when reading your article, perhaps because parts of it so closely mirror my own thoughts about Wagner. I feel that the essence of what makes his work so troubling is precisely, as you suggested in one of your follow-up notes, the disparity that it implies between the beautiful and the good. However, there are a few points on which I feel you do a disservice both to Wagner and to your own argument.

The first point is in regard to the notion that lovers of Wagner’s music are in it purely for those thrilling moments that make the “interminable recitatives” worth­while. Con­sider, for instance, Wotan’s monologue in Act II of Die Walküre, which is one of the recitatives that you mention. James Levine supposedly calls this section of the opera “the part that separates the men from the boys.” What he means, I believe, is that this monologue — perhaps boring to a casual or inattentive listener — is precisely the sort of passage to which lovers of Wagner are most attracted. Instead of being something that they sit through in order to get to the good parts, it is experienced as a thrilling demonstration both of the dramatic powers of the singer, and of Wagner’s ability to achieve the greatest of musical effects with an economy of means. Lovers of Wagner experience his best operas not as a selections of good bits interlarded with “terrible quarters of an hour”, but as coherent dramatic unities, some of which — like Die Walküre — are capti­vating from beginning to end.

The way in which audiences experience Wagner’s music is related closely to a second issue, which is his treatment of time. I agree entirely with you that Wagner’s control of time is a large part of what makes his work revolutionary, but I think you are mistaken in suggesting that his control of time consists only in an ability to stop it. There are whole passages in Wagner’s work — such as Tristan’s delirium in Act III of Tristan und Isolde, or almost the entire second act of Götterdammerüng — in which time rushes forward at breakneck speed, hurtling toward catastrophe with a terri­fying momentum. These segments are as far as imaginable from any attempt to hold onto the moment. Yet they are among the places in Wagner that many love the most; and they are also among the parts of his work that the ambivalent Wagnerite finds most morally troubling.

What is novel in Wagner’s treatment of time may be summed up in Thomas Mann’s famous evocation of his similarities with Tolstoy and Ibsen. What was common to all three figures, Mann said, was the “union of myth and psychology.” Wagner’s operas, for all their mythic trappings, are thus a part of the history of nineteenth-century psychological realism. This underlies Nietzsche’s sniffing comparison of Wagner’s heroines to Emma Bovary; but more to the point, it also explains the nature of Wagner’s treatment of time.

Earlier operas, at least until Gluck, relied on a conception of time that was essentially hieratic, divided into carefully demarcated chunks of recitative—in which musical development stopped and narrative time advanced—and aria, in which action froze and a single emotion or affect was expanded upon. The Wagnerian “endless melody” is something quite different: not an “interminable recitative,” as you suggest, but rather a means by which aria-like sections and recitative-like sections are seam­lessly blended into each other, with such fluency that the audience is seldom aware of the transition. It is not surprising, then, that Wagner often spoke of his technique as being the “art of transition.” Our experience of time when listening to Wagner is thus essentially psychological. Yes, we may freeze in a moment of bliss with the awak­ening Brünnhilde; but we may also rush forward toward death with the fevered Tristan, or toward apocalypse with the villainous Hagen in Götterdammerüng. The point is that, in either case, our experience of time is entirely bounded by that of the characters in the opera itself. An operatic world of hieratic ritual is thus replaced by one of painstaking pyschological realism, much as the “bourgeois” psychology of Ibsen replaced the carefully constructed symmetries of the “well-made play.”

A final point is that the musical structure implied by Wagner’s “endless melody” was not unprecedented—rather, as Wagner himself said, it developed out of the finales to Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, particularly that of Don Giovanni. This suggests that Wagner is not as remote from the classical style as you might believe, and that his music may indeed be a logical, though frightening, continuation of it. Your argument that his music is alien to, or at least parasitic upon, the classical tradition, derives in part from what I feel to be a misunderstanding of the intellectual underpinnings of that tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, the most properly “Christian” music would be that of Josquin and his contemporaries; by contrast, the music of the baroque and classical periods, for the most part, exists in a state of struggle against radical doubt. In Beethoven, this struggle has become formalized as a dialectical conflict between antagonistic musical elements—usually remote keys, as in the Neapolitan relation­ships of the Appassionata Sonata, or differing enharmonic interpretations of a single pitch, as in the C-natural/B-sharp duality of the Seventh Symphony.

In middle Beethoven, the conflict between these elements is what generates the musical structure, and what leads to the triumphant affirmation with which many of the works of the heroic period close. The vision of the world presented in Beethoven is thus much closer to that of Hegel than it is to that of Christian eschatology: for in Beethoven, as in Hegel, it is the process of dialectical conflict that leads us toward perfection. But as Leszek Kolakowski has remarked, Hegel’s philosophy, originally intended as theodicy, ends up as theogony; similarly, the exaltation of heroic struggle in middle Beethoven differs only in degree — not in kind — from the Wagnerian cult of the Artist as Prophet.

I would like, finally, to reiterate that I am in agreement with you about the central paradox that Wagner presents us: that the beautiful is not necessarily the good. For his music does indeed trouble me deeply, at the same time that I love it very much. In much of what he wrote there is a profound “sympathy for the abyss,” mirroring the nihilism of the Schopenhauerian metaphysics that so attracted Wagner. As Nietsche wrote, “only the philosopher of decadence could give to the artist of decadence — himself.” But if we trivialize Wagner’s achievement, we are merely disguising from ourselves the enormity of the problem he poses. If his work is merely fine moments and dull quarters of an hour, it should not bother us so much that it is also morally troubling. It is a much more frightening situation if Tristan, the Ring, and Parsifal are masterpieces of the first order, which are not alien to, but instead spring directly from, the greatest artistic achievements of Wagner’s classical predecessors. Because if this is true, then the gnawing question he presents us—the question of the disparity between the beautiful and the good—is truly inescapable.


Jun 222010

by Alexander Pope

‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

‘Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick’s Share;
Both must alike from Heav’n derive their Light,
These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, ’tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?

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May 012010

It is a recurrent trope in writing about Thucydides to place him in opposition to Plato. I would like to consider some of the ramifications that this opposition may have for our understanding of Thucydides, and to evaluate its limitations. But first we must try to disentangle the various guises that it assumes.

At the most specific level, the contrast between Plato and Thucydides may be broken down into various small polarities, in each of which the two thinkers do indeed seem to hold irreconcilable views. Thus the Socratic maxim that no one does evil knowingly seems to directly contradict Thucydides’ tragic vision of human nature, as the Platonic search for universals stands in opposition to the Thucydidean concern with the con­crete particular. None of the individual contrasts between Plato and Thucydides, how­ever, adequately capture the opposition that historians and philosophers have argued exists between them. This opposition is taken, rather, to arise from a funda­mental difference in one’s way of seeing, which subsumes all of these smaller dis­tinctions, and which leads the two thinkers to systemically different conclusions.

This opposition dates back at least to Nietzsche’s vision of Thucydides as a “cure for Platonism,” which is discussed at length in Darien Shanske’s Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History, and, following Nietzsche, is generally formulated in antagonistic terms. There are notable exceptions to this, such as David Grene’s Greek Political Theory, in which Plato and Thucydides are regarded as complementary oppo­sites.[1]  But most writers who have made the comparison, including Heidegger and Shanske himself, have done so in Nietzsche’s terms. I will return to Grene’s com­par­ison of Plato and Thucydides, in order to consider the ways in which it complicates the picture presented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Shanske. But first I would like to look more closely at Nietzsche’s description of Thucydides. This passage, despite its length, is worth quoting in full:

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  1. The “polarity of their intellectual configuration defined the range within which, in my judgment, all political speculation in the West can be seen to move…the completeness of the view of man, historically and politically, attained in these two different ways, is a kind of alpha and omega.” David Grene, Greek Political Theory: The Image of Man in Thucydides and Plato.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), vii-viii. []
Jan 102010

Verdi’s Otello is a work very much of its time, and this is true nowhere more than in its treatment of love and the erotic.  The simplest illustration of this may be found in the stark contrasts between the opera and its source.

Shakespeare’s Othello, more than any other play, is haunted by the theme of sexual disgust.  A.C. Bradley writes of the way in which “the matter of a play seems to go on working in Shakespeare’s mind and reappears, generally in a weaker form, in his next play.” [1] But the reverse process may also obtain, wherein a theme appears in one play in nascent form, only to be revisited on a far vaster scale in the next.  Thus the appalled fascination with sexuality in Hamlet, which lies behind both the title character’s ambivalent treatment of Ophelia and his famous castigation of his mother,

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! [2]

is echoed on a far vaster scale in Othello, taking root in the very first scene, in Iago’s mockery of Desdemona’s father, and growing until it all but dominates Othello’s mind.

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Oct 162009


My String Octet consists of four movements linked together to form one continuous arc. The piece is, in a sense, an extended cantata without words, and each move­ment but the second alludes, in a different fashion, to the forms of archaic vocal music. The first movement, marked Incipit, is much like the intonation that opens the Catholic liturgy; it begins with a meditation upon a single, elemental sound, which grows from near-silence into an austere, lonely chant.  This simple monody is joined by a second and then a third imitative line; the texture growing, at last, into a five-part motet, a dissonant and anguished shadow of the great sacred vocal works of Josquin and Palestrina. This leads directly into the second movement, marked Sinfonia in the sense that word held during the early Baroque period when it implied an instrumental interlude within a cantata or an oratorio. This sharp, violent music propels the piece toward the apex of the arc, the beginning of the third movement. Marked Recitative, it is a feverish soliloquy for the first cellist, accom­panied lightly by the rest of the ensemble, and ending in catastrophe. The dying sounds of the third movement fade finally into the fourth, a chorale, in which the music comes as if from a great distance, halting and enigmatic, retreating until it vanishes into the elemental sound with which the piece began.


May 152009
God created the integers; the rest is the work of man.
Leopold Kronecker


What are we saying when we talk about music?

This question captures the paradox that lies at the heart of musical theory. Put in its most basic form, the problem that has dogged musical theory since Boethius has to do with the relationship between reason and the esthetic sense. The earliest theories show that the coexistence between the two was never an entirely easy one:

In the final analysis, it was to this that the Pythagoreans’ harmonic analysis of the universe led: the discovery of incommensurables. And no matter how they might juxtapose the numbers, no matter to what lengths they might extend their mathematical circumlocutions, one fact remained, a fact that has ever since proved resistant to mathematical rationalization: there is no fraction m/n that will divide the whole-tone into two equal parts.[1]

The Pythagorean construction of music was an attempt at reconciling the rational and the beautiful — at showing that they are, indeed, one and the same. In this sense it was a corollary to the impulse behind the Parthenon: the Athenians believed that the golden ratio, applied to every dimension of a structure, would create something that was beautiful precisely because of its mathematical perfection.

In music, as mentioned in the previous quote, this dream was quickly shown to be illusory. While the Parthenon was constructed ex nihilo, and could perfectly mirror the rational dreams of its designers, the Pythagorean theorists of music were con­fronted from the beginning with a stubborn fact: there were pre-existing and deeply engrained notions of what constituted the proper and beautiful in music — the whole tone, the semi-tone, the modes, the tuning of the lyre — and, although they hovered tantalizingly close to the realm of reason, they ultimately eluded its grasp.

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Jan 092009


To analyze Josquin is to confront, head on, the incommensur­ability between analytical systems and true artistic greatness.  There is a sense in which approaching him with modern tools of dissection is catching sand in a sieve; no tool of deeper analysis — of the sort favored by composers and theoreticians from the common practice period to the present — will ever yield an entirely satisfactory understanding of his music.  The analysis may indeed provide insight into the less fundamental levels of a works’ structure: motivic parsing may yield a facile understanding of the linear building blocks of a work, and the study of fugal techniques might explain, simply enough, the manner of their deployment. But all of this is on the surface. At the basic, “skeletal” level, an ordinary structural analysis turns up strangely blank. When we ask the most important question—the question of what gives the work meaning, direction, unity—the answer proves opaque.  The explanation why follows an obscure path outward, through questions that are technical, linguistic, and finally philosophical.

There are probably three fundamental paradigms through which the deeper structure of music can be approached.  These I will term, for the sake of this argument, the Schenkerian, the Schoenbergian, and the architectonic.  Each must be carefully turned over, its relevance to the music of the early Renaissance deciphered, and the rest, for the moment, thrown out.  From the remnants, and from a largely unguided study of the score of Josquin’s Missa L’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales, I will attempt to construct a method which is technically and philosophically coherent with Josquin’s music.  This, hopefully, will itself provide further insight into the score.

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Dec 052008

In the literature on Schoenberg, there is surprisingly little material that deals comprehensively with his relation to the broader intel­lectual trends of fin-de-siècle Vienna.  We are provided with snap­shots, from this angle or that; the full picture remains elusive.

The contemporary interpretations we have of Schoenberg’s relation to his Viennese milieu fall, broadly speaking, into two categories.  These categories reflect two competing interpretations of his broader musical significance, which themselves correspond to two distinct and occasionally contradictory sides of Schoenberg’s nature.  These interpretations we may call the rational-technical, and the ethical-religious.  There are also, notably, a small number of works that attempt to synthesize these two approaches, but as of yet none do full justice to their subject. It is in this field—the consideration of Schoenberg in his sometimes paradoxical totality—that the richest work remains to be done.


The first school of interpretation, and that which was predominant for much of the mid-twentieth century, is the rational-technical.  This itself is intimately related to the school of technical analysis which tends to address itself exclusively to the linguistic and formal elements of Schoenberg’s musical language.

The rational-technical interpretation of Schoenberg might also be called the positivist interpretation.  Those who endorse this view of Schoenberg tend to see him, where they relate him to contemporary intellectual phenomena, predominantly in the light of the logical positivism of the Wiener Kreis, or Vienna Circle, a discussion group that grew up around the philosopher Moritz Schlick.  They also, concordantly, place considerable emphasis on Schoenberg’s relation to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the most important philosophical document of the period, and one by which the logical positivists set considerable store.

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