Bad times make great art?

 Worlds of light and shadow: The reproduction of liberalism in Weimar Germany

The claim that good art comes from hard times is the height of delusionally entitled thinking

Bad times make great art. Worlds of light and shadow: The reproduction of liberalism in Weimar Germany

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) (Credit: Kino International)

On election night a murmur started just as the last gasp faded, “Well at least we can expect some great art.” At first the sentiment was a fatalistic one-off, a brave face, a shy hope that something good would come from the dark days forecast for the Trump presidency. It didn’t take long for the statement to acquire a predictive tone, eventually a waft of desperation was detectable and, ultimately, shrill fiat.

The art of protest is provocative, no question. It’s often brave, usually fierce, sometimes compelling and occasionally inspirational. But is the appeal of the books, films, poetry, painting, television and sculpture produced in response to tyranny, oligarchic pomposity or a fetishistic prioritization of the bottom line universal or simply reactive? How durable is the art birthed from protest? The following essay is the second in a series for Salon exploring the question Do bad times really inspire great art?

On Nov. 6 of this year, just two days before the presidential election, aging American punks Green Day took the stage at the MTV Europe Music Awards to perform their 2004, Bush II-era modern pop-punk staple, “American Idiot.”

Singer Billie Joe Armstrong snarled in the vague direction of then-presidential hopeful, now president-elect Donald J. Trump, asking the audience of largely Dutch citizens possessing close to zero influence on the American political conversation, “Can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind-Trump America.”

Apart from the lyrics not making a lot of sense, it also had no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the election. However well-meaning, Armstrong and Co. would have been just as effective by writing “DO NOT VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP” on a piece of paper, cramming it in a bottle, and chucking it into the ocean, or by whispering “Trump is bad” into a hole.

The clear lesson: punk is dead. And not only that, but it’s been poisoned, drowned, hanged, beaten, stabbed, killed, re-killed and killed again, like some slobbering Rasputin-ish zombie. So when people claim, desperately, that Trump’s America will somehow lead to a resurgence in angry, politically charged guitar music, it’s all I can do to keep my eyes from rolling out of my head.

* * *

To claim that good art — that is: stuff of considerable aesthetic merit, which is maybe even socially advantageous — comes from hard times is the height of delusionally entitled thinking, as if mass deportations and radicalized violence are all in the service of a piece of music. Of course, even the idea of what qualifies as “good times” must be qualified. Given that Trump won the election, it stands to reason that for a majority of Americans (or at least for a majority of electoral college representatives) the prospect of a Trump presidency is a beneficial thing, which will usher in a new epoch of prosperity and big-league American greatness.

There may be truth, or at least the ring of truth, in the idea that objects of artistic value can be produced under the pressure of hardship. While it may be true that an artist like, say, the late Leonard Cohen was able to mine the fathomless quarries of heartache and longing for his music and poetry, it is also true that Cohen was blessed with socio-economic privilege, both in the form of family inheritances and grants from a liberal Canadian government that supported (and continues to support, in various respects) art and artists. His heart may have been hard, but the times weren’t.

At the cultural level, good art tends to emerge from good times. It’s not even about having a well-managed social welfare state (though that, of course, helps). Rather, it seems to be a matter of liberal attitudes reproducing themselves in certain contexts, leading to greater degrees of freedom and greater gains in artistic production and sophistication.

So forget Green Day for a second. Take, as an example, the Weimar Republic of Germany’s interwar period. It was a short-lived heyday of liberalism and representative democracy, flourishing smack between two periods of staunch authoritarianism: bookended by the post-unification German Empire on one side, and Nazi Germany on the other. It was in this context that some of the twentieth century’s most compelling art was created.

* * *

It’s tricky to even think about Weimar Germany without being ensnared by the sickly succour of cliché. You know: leggy chorus girls high-kicking in all-night cabarets, gays and lesbians fraternizing freely, women in short hair lighting cigarettes while the zippy strains of jaunty jazz wafts hither and yon on in a smoky hall — a populace caught in full thrall of freedom. Fritz Lang’s 1922 film “Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler,” the opening titles of which describe it as “A Picture of the Times,” depicts Berlin’s underworld as equally rococo in its bourgeois elegance, and chaotically debased. As the proprietor of an illegal casino puts it, summing up the free-spirited ethos of the era, “Everything that pleases is allowed.”
Emerging from the horror of the First World War, and the 1918 November Revolution that saw the imperial government sacked, the nation’s consciousness was in a state of jumble and disarray. But it was an exciting  jumble, full of possibility. The philosopher Ernst Block compared Weimar Germany to Periclean Athens of the fifth century BCE: a time of cultural thriving, sovereign self-governance, and increased social and political equality. Germany became a hub for intellectualism, nurturing physicists like Einstein and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Art indulged experimentalism and the avant-garde, united less by common aesthetic tendencies and more by shared socialist values. It was era of Otto Dix, Bertolt Brecht, the Bauhaus group, Arnold Schoenberg and a new, expressionist tendency in cinema.

Robert Weine’s 1919 film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” embodied the spirit of this new age. It told the story of a small community preyed upon by the maniacal carnival barker Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose newest attraction is a spooky-looking sleepwalker named Cesare (the great German actor Conrad Veidt). By cover of darkness, Caligari controls Cesare, using him to commit a string of violent crimes. With its highly stylized sets, and comments on the brutality of authority, the film presented a whole alternative vision of the world. Both stylistically and thematically, “Caligari” imagined the splintering of the postwar German psyche, presenting a sense that reality itself had been destabilizing, and was reconstituting itself in jagged lines and oblique curlicues. The movie’s lasting influence is inestimable.

In his landmark work of cultural analysis, “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film,” film critic Siegfried Kracauer described the “collapse of the old hierarchy of values and conventions” in Weimar-era Germany. “For a brief while,” Kracauer writes, “the German mind had a unique opportunity to overcome hereditary habits and reorganize itself completely. It enjoyed freedom of choice, and the air was full of doctrines trying to captivate it, to lure it into a regrouping of inner attitudes.”

Certainly, German cinema of the era often explicitly figures authoritarian characters attempting to seduce the public: from Weine’s madman Dr. Caligari, to Lang’s huckster Dr. Mabuse. For the reforming national consciousness, authority served as a kind of siren song, luring the public out of the rowdy cabarets and nightclubs and back on the straight and narrow. By the early 1930s, attitudes seemed to be shifting. In Fritz Lang’s classic thriller “M,” from 1931, police sniff out a serial killer in part by trying to determine a psychosexual basis for his crimes. It was at once a strike against the unfettered sexual libertinism of the Berlin cabarets, and a sinister intimation of Nazism, which was notoriously marked by its pseudoscientific quackery about the biological basis of criminality and depravity. The hallmarks of Weimar — its authoritarian disenthrallment, its slackening attitudes toward sexual repression, its intoxicating cosmopolitanism — were curdling.

* * *

Weimar poses a number of compelling questions around the subject of historical and cultural Golden Ages. Such rigidly compartmentalized, epochal thinking leads inevitably to collapse. How, after all, can a “Golden Age” be defined without presuming its emergence from, and collapse back into, periods of relative darkness and doom? It recalls Karl Marx’s thinking on historical stages, outlined in volume one of “Capital,” and the idea that each historical period carries within it the seeds of its successor. And it is force, according to Marx, that serves as “the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.”

In the case of Weimar, the sense of expanded liberty was undercut in several respects. While the upper and middle classes grew in prosperity, the working poor were afflicted by hyperinflation, and by and large unaffected by new gains made in left-wing modernist painting, cabaret culture and avant-garde cinema. Sexual libertinism bred syphilis outbreaks. Old-stock Germans balked at the moral and aesthetic degeneracy of the new art movements. For such people, Weimar was regarded less like Periclean Athens and more like the ancient African port of Carthage: fit to be sacked, razed, and have its earth salted so that no memory of it could possibly proliferate.

It speaks to a certain historical tendency. To revise Marx, it’s not just that a given society is pregnant with the next one, but that it’s pregnant with resentments and reactions. With Weimar, expanded cultural and political liberalism emerged as a reaction to the authoritarianism of imperial Germany, with the even fiercer authoritarianism and violence of Hitler’s regime emerging as a response to that. Stereotypes of left-leaning artists cavorting in cabarets found their negative image, their doppelgänger, in nationalist thugs roving the streets.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a period of growth and advancement, artistically and otherwise. Rather, it’s a historical reminder that even periods that usher in all manner of artistic and cultural headway need to be relentlessly qualified. It’s not that good times don’t make for good art. It’s that, really, there’s never been such a thing as a distinctly, determinedly, wholly unequivocally “good time.” Even the most shimmering epochs exist in contradiction, conflict and often out-and-out hypocrisy. Like the backdrop of “Caligari,” ours has always been a world of light and shadow. Something to keep in mind as the world stumbles into what’s shaping up to be a new Periclean Golden Age of American Idiocy.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of “This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall” (ECW Press).

Plan an Inaugurexit That’s Just Right for You

Posted on Jan 13, 2017

By Chris Storm

  Soon-to-be-President Donald Trump. (Rainier Ehrhardt / AP)

If you sat out Election Day by not voting or by voting for a third-party candidate, there is nothing here for you. You’ve made your bed; enjoy lying in it and watching wall-to-wall inauguration coverage.

But if you are still hoarse from making get-out-the-vote calls or your feet still have the blisters you got while door-knocking during the campaign, or if you need to watch the news with your new friend the airsick bag, read on for some things you can do to push back on Inauguration Day.

To avoid permanent retina damage from the sight of 30-foot gold letters spelling out “TRUMP” on the Capitol dome, you have three options: You can protect yourself from it, cleanse yourself of it or correct your world in the wake of it—like a skin care ad for sudden-onset inauguritis.

Protect

• Unplug. This is the prime directive: Cut off all media, news and social connections. The last thing you want is to see old friends start to rationalize this with the maybe-it-won’t-be-so-bad-after-all Band-Aid. Inauguration coverage is going to be omnipresent. Whatever you are used to watching will be preempted and soaked with so much bunting and B.S. it will send you back to the airsick bag. So pull the plug on all your devices, or at least disconnect the news sources and alerts on your phone.

• Divert. Do something that occupies you. If you have hobbies or skills, go at them for as long as they distract you, then switch to an alternative below. Knitting can suck up hours, for example. Can you paper-mache a festive cover for your TV screen? It will come in handy for the State of the Union too! The inaugural will be endless, followed by ball coverage, so plan your diversions accordingly.

• Venture out. Make a list of the museums and cultural institutions you have not been to or checked out in a while. Hit them all. Then stop for a wonderful dinner at a place without a TV before taking in a concert, play or film. Wind up the evening with a nightcap. Just don’t head home until after the 11 o’clock news.

• Venture out plus. Why not get on a plane, fly away from media centers and rust-belt states and land at a calming retreat? The inauguration is on a Friday, so you could make it a long warm-weekend escape. Hawaii is now an all-blue state, beaches and mai tais included. If that’s too pricey, jump in your car and drive somewhere out of Wi-Fi range.

• Hunker. Hook up a hose over your bedroom window to simulate rain, lower the shades and repeat your new rainy-day mantra—“must finish book”—over and over. Do not get out of the bed unless it’s for a food delivery or bathroom break. Do not answer the phone unless the call is from a pal who is also inaugurexiting.

• Escape. Queue up some visual favorites, but think through the content. “Judgment at Nuremberg” is a great film but will make you think about Agent Orange, our about-to-be president, in a comparative way. Pull it out of rotation. Obviously, pull “The Manchurian Candidate” (either version) as well. All presidential biography films—yank. And be wary of classics like “Born Yesterday.” I recently watched it but started seeing orange hair on Broderick Crawford and hallucinating Judy Holiday with a Russian accent. Whoa! Way too close for comfort.

• Sustain yourself. Stock up on snacks and a box of wine. Don’t drink the good stuff on this mission; boxes tend to contain more, and it’s going to be a long day—and evening. So pack enough mood enhancers to make sure you don’t awaken to see Agent Orange dancing with Ivanka at the Scott Baio ball, the Ted Nugent Ball or the Alt-Right Ball ‘n Burn.

• Work. If you must go in and someone brings up the inauguration, treat it like a sporting event you want to see later. “Oh for God’s sake, don’t spoil it for me” (swallow the little throw-up that surges up in your mouth.) You should know which co-workers to avoid. If you must leave your cube, keep eyes forward or down.

CLEANSE

There’s no way to change what happened now. If you’re thinking you can Harry-Potter it away, you will just magnify the appendix-rupture-like pain you feel. Try these tips instead.

• Couldn’t your social calendar use a good scrubbing? Cleanse it on Inaugurexit Day—a gift that will pay you back all year long!

• Invited to attend a fundraising event where the recipient group is leaving you with a bitter Orange taste? Bet you forgot your uncle’s upcoming operation—he needs you for a few days. These social-event outs will challenge your imagination with excuses that are fun to create and embellish.

• A good primal scream is very cleansing. As soon as they finish the swearing-in, I want you to go to your window and open it, and scream as loud as you can, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Repeat as necessary.

CORRECT

Or as rock legend Warren Zevon wrote, “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Because truly, the shit has hit the fan. We have to play hardball. That means organizing and backing effective organizations that are already lawyered up, because the action is going to be in the courts. Use your safe-and-sane Inaugurexit day to review these organizations. There will be plenty of efforts you can engage in locally, but manage your cash for the big wins.

Indivisible: A group of congressional staffers has created a how-to guide based on the success tea partiers and others had in disrupting Congress’ and Obama’s agenda. Plan during the inauguration and dive in the next day. Make your group part of something bigger and more effective.

Common Cause: Ever wonder why, as our country becomes more diverse, our Congress doesn’t? That’s because in many states, congressional districts have been configured to spit out same-party candidates forever. The contorted district shapes look like the alien alphabet in the movie “Arrival.” Rigged? More like preordained. This solution will be under the other side’s radar, because it is longer-term and because their leader believes “gerrymander” is the kid in “Leave it to Beaver.” Fortunately, Common Cause is a successful, lawyered-up organization that is already on the gerrymandering case. Follow up with them online and start folding up those airsick bags.

ThinkProgress has started its own Trump Investigative Fund. To fight against fake news, which clearly got us to this point, regularly funding them or Mother Jones and others of their ilk will ensure that the pressure stays on. You’ll feel much better knowing you are shining a flashlight on the little orange cockroaches, exposing lies, financial conflicts and Twitter hypocrisies.

Credo: This is a long-distance provider that donates a percentage of your payments to progressive and charitable organizations you help select. Account setup is easy, and any additional financial donation is always in your control as you help patch the forthcoming congressional shredding of the social safety net.

• The Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council: The environment has a large orange target and a harsh way of doing its own “correcting” (bye, bye humans). These two groups have lawyered up and won big victories, so consider signing up and saving the planet.

CharityWatch Top Rated: These guys dive deep to let you know how efficiently a charity will use your donation to fund the programs you want to support. CharityWatch exposes nonprofit abuses and advocates for your interests as a donor.

Resolve to donate to whatever organization fits best with your priorities. You can try to avoid what’s happened, you can shake it off and keep going, but most importantly, fight it.

If none of these tips work for you, you can always volunteer to live fact-check Trump’s inauguration speech. Shouldn’t be too tough. How many lies can you fit into 140 characters?

Chris Storm is a writer who works in marketing in suburban Philadelphia.

Truthdig

Elegy for a Year of Death in America

CULTURE
If Nietzsche was right about “what does not kill me,” we’re stronger now. Facing the darkness is the way forward.

Photo Credit: By The original uploader was Nagelfar at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Peace, peace!” wrote Percy Shelley in the climactic stanza of his great poem about the death of his friend and rival, John Keats. But Shelley’s poem, “Adonaïs,” is not about peace — rather the opposite. If anything, it’s about the strife and anguish from which human life is never free.

He is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

This is a form of consolation common to poetry and religion, one much in demand over the past 12 months as we have lost David Bowie, Muhammad AliPrince,Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (just off the top of my head) and have suffered the not-entirely-metaphorical death of our democracy, which has been sick far longer than any of those people. If you grew up amid Anglo-American pop culture of the 1970s and ’80s, and if you once held a burnished view of American tradition and American possibility — that describes, I think, a large number of people — this has been a tough year. I can’t promise I can make any of it better, but I can assure you that all the emotions we now feel have been felt before. Maybe that counts for something.

Confronting the mortality of famous people is always a way of confronting our own, I suppose, just as the tales of their marriages and divorces and affairs seem to echo and deepen our own histories of relationship success or failure. If you belong to the micro-generation that assumed that most of the people on that list would always be part of our lives, as I do, then 2016 has offered an especially pungent reminder that there is no such thing as “always,” and that our day is coming sooner than we would like. If your year was also not easy for other, more personal reasons (as mine certainly was), that seems to go with the territory.

As a child, I rushed out to the driveway for the newspaper on the morning after Ali’s big Madison Square Garden fight with Joe Frazier, and was crushed to learn that the mighty hero had fallen. A few years after that, Bowie’s late ’70s records offered me my first glimpse into a realm of bohemian adventure that actually existed, in real life and on the same continent where I lived, and not just in books about the 1920s or the 19th century. Add a few more years, and Prince emerged as the perfect distillation of white and black pop, a symbol of racial and cultural liberation sent to free us from the Reagan years. I didn’t learn to appreciate Cohen’s music until adulthood, when (again, along with many other people) I realized that he was not some folk-rock phenomenon constrained by the ’60s but something closer to a modern-day prophet.

Each of them, like the other people on that list, had a long and complicated life with many conflicting currents, and I won’t even try to do justice to that complexity here. But it did not occur to me that I would live to see them all dead, or that those deaths would all occur in a year that had so many other ways to make us mourn for lost time and lost opportunities, so many ways of reminding us that time is fleeting, and to gather our rosebuds while we may.

I didn’t have the same personal relationships with other people on that list, or with others I haven’t mentioned (Edward Albee or Elie Wiesel or George Martin or Gloria Naylor or Maurice White or Mose Allison — we could go on). But you may, and people each of us knows almost certainly do. Someone close to me was really broken up over Alan Rickman, who was one of the greatest screen and stage actors of our time, and I don’t begrudge anyone, gay or otherwise, for perceiving George Michael as a sui generis figure — a Keatsian figure, if ever there was one — who broke new ground in pop music. (“Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1” is simply a great record, so great it seemed to have defeated its creator in some ways.)

I don’t want to dwell too much on the perhaps-terminal decline of American democracy, which this publication and everyone else in the media has been worrying over for the last year and a half, like a dog with an old mutton bone. It’s not as if people who supported the incoming president are incapable of grief and sorrow (although I suspect they are underrepresented in the Bowie and Prince fanbases). But for many of us the inexplicable political events of 2016, which remain difficult to believe, even now that they have happened, are at once the atmosphere, the subtext and the inner meaning of all this death. I was not an especially avid supporter of Hillary Clinton, but for many American women (and men) the perverse tale of how she was denied the presidency yet again in her final campaign is another of this year’s great losses. The vision of a woman president came so close to reality, but remains a dream deferred.

We have a way, as human beings, of staring into the darkness and seeing light. We’re going to need that now. In some ways, what Shelley has to tell us in “Adonaïs” is highly conventional: Whatever you believe awaits us on the other side — something or nothing, heaven or hell — at least the struggles of this life are over. Mourning is essentially a form of self-indulgence; it is we who suffer, not the dead. Shelley wrote that poem, of course, while still amid the mad trance of life, locked in unprofitable strife with phantoms: He had one eye on his dead friend and the other on posterity, and was clearly trying to go head to head with John Milton’s “Lycidas,” written nearly two centuries earlier, the first really famous pastoral elegy for a dead friend in the English tradition.

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves …

Milton refers us back to Christian redemption as the reason not to feel depressed about death and loss, or at least he thinks he does. (I’m inclined to argue that he invented Romanticism without meaning to, and was constantly at war with his own faith.) But the idea at work here, that light must come out of darkness and hope can be found amid deep personal despair — the belief in literal or allegorical transcendence — is such a cultural constant across literary and religious traditions that it has to mean something. Admittedly, that “something” might just be that biology drives us onward, and those of us who find ourselves still living while others die make up reasons to keep going, because our brains are over-evolved and we can’t help thinking about these things. Cats and beetles, so far as we can tell, don’t ask themselves these questions.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous maxim that “what does not kill me makes me stronger” has been repurposed so much by football coaches and military strategists that its original ambiguity has gotten lost. Like most of the mad German’s pronouncements, that one is double-edged and purposefully unclear. Nietzsche knew from experience, for example, that physical illness does not make you stronger in any ordinary sense. (That passage, in fact, comes from “Twilight of the Idols,” his next-to-last major work.) I take his statement to mean that confronting death and mortality directly, as we draw nearer to our own deaths, fortifies us to better use the hours and days we have left.

Nearly everyone I know is coming out of 2016 beset by deep feelings of grief and loss. If we have been made stronger in that sense, we will be more than strong enough for whatever lies ahead: death or transformation, political or cultural or personal. Walt Whitman was thinking of something like this, in a more optimistic key, in perhaps the greatest of his poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” He imagines making friends with death, holding hands with death, and even arriving at “a sacred knowledge of death,” as a way of dealing with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (named in the poem only as “him I loved”), a grievous loss that did not quite kill America and may, for a while, have made it stronger.

And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent — lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

 

Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD (1963)

Aldous Huxley put himself forever on the intellectual map when he wrote the dystopian sci-fi novel Brave New World in 1931. (Listen to Huxley narrating a dramatized version here.) The British-born writer was living in Italy at the time, a continental intellectual par excellence.

Then, six years later, Huxley turned all of this upside down. He headed West, to Hollywood, the newest of the New World, where he took a stab at writing screenplays (with not much luck) and started experimenting with mysticism and psychedelics — first mescaline in 1953, then LSD in 1955. This put Huxley at the forefront of the counterculture’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs, something he documented in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception.

Huxley’s experimentation continued right through his death in November 1963. When cancer brought him to his death bed, he asked his wife to inject him with “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.” He died later that day, just hours after Kennedy’s assassination. Three years later, LSD was officially banned in California.

By way of footnote, it’s worth mentioning that the American medical establishment is now giving hallucinogens a second look, conducting controlled studies of how psilocybin and other psychedelics can help treat patients dealing with cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug/alcohol addiction and end-of-life anxiety. The New York Times has more on this story.

For a look at the history of LSD, we recommend the 2002 film Hofmann’s Potion(2002) by Canadian filmmaker Connie Littlefield. You can watch it here, or find it listed in our collection of Free Movies Online.

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Insightful Nuggets from Leonard Cohen’s Songs

Wisdom for Troubled Times

Empathy, clear eyes, vision and more for troubled times.

Photo Credit: http://www.leonardcohen.com

Just before Donald Trump became our reality TV star president-elect, songwriter-bard Leonard Cohen died, leaving an incomparable legacy.

Releasing his last album weeks before his death at 82, Cohen charted courses for survival and redemption. And he pulled no punches. To the end, he deftly interwove themes of darkness and light that were political and personal, erotic and sacred. More than entertaining his listeners, Cohen intimately engaged them. He called on fellow travelers to take heart, make change, laugh, pray, dance, and act with courage, dignity and love.

Insights from a dozen Cohen songs are relevant to today’s unsettling realities.

1. Achieving democratic ideals is an ongoing challenge. Cohen’s prescient “Democracy” (1992) recounts the governmental system’s challenges and shortcomings. “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and the worst…from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet…It’s coming from the sorrow in the streets, from the holy places where the races meet…Democracy is coming to the USA.”

Cohen told Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting in 1992: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country…This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another.”

How to navigate all this complexity? The song admonishes: “The heart has got to open in a fundamental way.” Cohen sends godspeed for America’s precarious journey: “Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state! To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate…”

2. Stare down desolation with grit and grace. In “Steer Your Way” (2016), released on his final album, Cohen’s sings: “Steer your way past the ruins of the altar and the mall…/Steer your way past the pain that is far more real than you/That’s smashed the Cosmic Model/That blinded every view.”

He calls for unflinching self-review and humility: “Steer your way past the Truth that you believed in yesterday/…And say the mea culpa which you gradually forgot/Year by year, month by month, day by day/Thought by thought.”

As Cohen prepared to bid farewell, he surveyed the natural world and a coarsened culture with trademark irony: “They whisper still, the struggling stones/The blunted mountains weep/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.”

3. Yes, the system is rigged—now what? Decades before Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren railed against oligarchs and plutocrats controlling America, Cohen pronounced, “Everybody knows the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton/For your ribbons and bows.”

“Everybody Knows” (1988, with Sharon Robinson) is a caustic litany: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.”

Both bleak and droll, it can be heard as a fatalistic accounting of corruption or an urgent plea to clean things up.

4. Hold onto an inner guiding compass. “In My Secret Life” (2001, with Sharon Robinson) celebrates quiet subversiveness. “I do what I have to do/to get by/But I know what is wrong/And I know what is right/And I’d die for the truth/in my secret life.”

The song recounts the strain of facing ever-present horrors: “Looked through the paper/Makes you want to cry/nobody cares if the people/live or die/And the dealer wants you thinking/That it’s either black or white/thank God it’s not that simple/ in my secret life.”

5. Take care of body and spirit. “Come Healing” (2012, with Patrick Leonard) is reverent, transcendent: “O see the darkness yielding/That tore the light apart/Come healing of the reason/Come healing of the heart.”

A devout Jew, Cohen also often referenced other spiritual traditions: “Behold the gates of mercy/In arbitrary space/And none of us deserving/The cruelty or the grace/O solitude of longing/Where love has been confined/Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.”

6. Tough times call for clear-eyed vision and empathy. “The Future (1992) is prophetically stark: “Give me back the Berlin Wall/give me Stalin and St. Paul/Give me Christ/or give me Hiroshima…I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”

Cohen explained to Rolling Stone in 2009 that “The Future” and “Democracy” were on his concert set list, “because their apocalyptic vision seems truer now than when they were recorded. People really thought I needed help back then,” Cohen told the reporter, laughing.

The song warns: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/…the blizzard of the world/has crossed the threshold/And it has overturned/the order of the soul.” Nevertheless, he offers a way out: “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/But love’s the only engine of survival.”

7. Embrace imperfection. “Anthem” (1992) starts as a solemn serenity prayer, “The birds, they sang/At the break of day/Start again/ I heard them say/Don’t dwell on what/Has passed away/Or what is yet to be.”

Then it urges action and acceptance, despite all: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

The narrator defiantly prepares for mythic battle: “I can’t run no more/With that lawless crowd/While the killers in high places/Say their prayers out loud/But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up/A thundercloud/And they’re going to hear from me.”

Rebecca De Mornay, who co-produced the song, told Uncut about the verse: “That ‘I’—that’s the soul of Leonard Cohen.”

8. Invoke a higher power. The incantatory tone of “If It Be Your Will” (1984) reflects Cohen’s fervent mysticism. “From this broken hill/All your praises they shall ring/If it be your will/To let me sing.”

It’s a plea for global as well as personal salvation: “If there is a choice/Let the rivers fill/Let the hills rejoice/Let your mercy spill/On all these burning hearts in Hell/If it be your will/To make us well.”

9. Comfort others and do what you can to sleep well. Cohen told Rolling Stone about a song he was working on in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession: “I thought that ‘Lullaby’ was just what everyone needs to get to sleep in these troubled times,” he said.

Released in 2012, it’s beautifully simple: “Sleep baby sleep/The day’s on the run/The wind in the trees/Is talking in tongues…If your heart is torn/I don’t wonder why/If the night is long/Here’s my lullaby.” Cohen reassures the listener: “There’s a morning to come.”

10. Live passionately. A popular standard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (1992) honors deep love and the protection it can provide. “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/And dance me to the end of love.” Even as passion gets spent, it shields: “Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn/Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn.”

Cohen told an interviewer the “burning violin” image “came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on.” He added that “It’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”

11. Celebrate paradox (and cultivate patience). “Hallelujah” (1984), Cohen’s exultant and erotic anthem has been covered some 300 times. He drafted 80 verses over five years before its release, sometimes singing alternate lyrics in concert, such as: “There’s a blaze of light/In every word/It doesn’t matter which you heard/The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

It took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to become a massive hit. Cohen told the CBC radio show Q in 2009 that after it was released on Various Positions in 1984 in Canada and Europe, Sony decided not to release the album in the U.S.: “The only person who seemed to recognize the song was Dylan. He was doing it in concert,” Cohen said.

More than a decade later, “Hallelujah” recordings by John Cale and Jeff Buckley began building an audience. Rufus Wainwright’s version in the 2001 film Shrekbrought it into the mainstream.

12. Take positive action, however you can. In “You Got Me Singing” (2014, with Patrick Leonard) Cohen’s deep-throated delivery conveys triumphant optimism (accompanied by a violin and country-tinged vocals). He makes a winking nod to his signature song: “You got me singing/Even tho’ the news is bad/You got me singing/The only song I ever had…You got me singing/Even tho’ it all looks grim/You got me singing/The Hallelujah hymn.”

His tone is matter-of-fact and resilient, even lighthearted: “Even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/I’d like to carry on.”

Virginia Small is a freelance journalist in Milwaukee who has followed the work of Leonard Cohen since his first album was released in 1967.

http://www.alternet.org/12-insightful-nuggets-leonard-cohens-songs-wisdom-troubled-times?akid=14925.265072.AMykVi&rd=1&src=newsletter1067922&t=26

KARL MARX, YESTERDAY AND TODAY

The nineteenth-century philosopher’s ideas may help us to understand the economic and political inequality of our time.

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On or about February 24, 1848, a twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London. Modern industry, it proclaimed, had revolutionized the world. It surpassed, in its accomplishments, all the great civilizations of the past—the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals. Its innovations—the railroad, the steamship, the telegraph—had unleashed fantastic productive forces. In the name of free trade, it had knocked down national boundaries, lowered prices, made the planet interdependent and cosmopolitan. Goods and ideas now circulated everywhere.

Just as important, it swept away all the old hierarchies and mystifications. People no longer believed that ancestry or religion determined their status in life. Everyone was the same as everyone else. For the first time in history, men and women could see, without illusions, where they stood in their relations with others.

The new modes of production, communication, and distribution had also created enormous wealth. But there was a problem. The wealth was not equally distributed. Ten per cent of the population possessed virtually all of the property; the other ninety per cent owned nothing. As cities and towns industrialized, as wealth became more concentrated, and as the rich got richer, the middle class began sinking to the level of the working class.

Soon, in fact, there would be just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property and the people who sold their labor to them. As ideologies disappeared which had once made inequality appear natural and ordained, it was inevitable that workers everywhere would see the system for what it was, and would rise up and overthrow it. The writer who made this prediction was, of course, Karl Marx, and the pamphlet was “The Communist Manifesto.” He is not wrong yet.

Considering his rather glaring relevance to contemporary politics, it’s striking that two important recent books about Marx are committed to returning him to his own century. “Marx was not our contemporary,” Jonathan Sperber insists, in “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life” (Liveright), which came out in 2013; he is “more a figure of the past than a prophet of the present.” And Gareth Stedman Jones explains that the aim of his new book, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” (Harvard), is “to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings.”

The mission is worthy. Historicizing—correcting for the tendency to presentize the past—is what scholars do. Sperber, who teaches at the University of Missouri, and Stedman Jones, who teaches at Queen Mary University of London and co-directs the Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge, both bring exceptional learning to the business of rooting Marx in the intellectual and political life of nineteenth-century Europe.

Marx was one of the great infighters of all time, and a lot of his writing was topical and ad hominem—no-holds-barred disputes with thinkers now obscure and intricate interpretations of events largely forgotten. Sperber and Stedman Jones both show that if you read Marx in that context, as a man engaged in endless internecine political and philosophical warfare, then the import of some familiar passages in his writings can shrink a little. The stakes seem more parochial. In the end, their Marx isn’t radically different from the received Marx, but he is more Victorian. Interestingly, given the similarity of their approaches, there is not much overlap.

Still, Marx was also what Michel Foucault called the founder of a discourse. An enormous body of thought is named after him. “I am not a Marxist,” Marx is said to have said, and it’s appropriate to distinguish what he intended from the uses other people made of his writings. But a lot of the significance of the work lies in its downstream effects. However he managed it, and despite the fact that, as Sperber and Stedman Jones demonstrate, he can look, on some level, like just one more nineteenth-century system-builder who was convinced he knew how it was all going to turn out, Marx produced works that retained their intellectual firepower over time. Even today, “The Communist Manifesto” is like a bomb about to go off in your hands.

And, unlike many nineteenth-century critics of industrial capitalism—and there were a lot of them—Marx was a true revolutionary. All of his work was written in the service of the revolution that he predicted in “The Communist Manifesto” and that he was certain would come to pass. After his death, communist revolutions did come to pass—not exactly where or how he imagined they would but, nevertheless, in his name. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves, and genuinely believed themselves to be, Marxist.

This matters because one of Marx’s key principles was that theory must always be united with practice. That’s the point of the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx was not saying that philosophy is irrelevant; he was saying that philosophical problems arise out of real-life conditions, and they can be solved only by changing those conditions—by remaking the world. And Marx’s ideas were used to remake the world, or a big portion of it. Although no one would hold him responsible, in a juridical sense, for the outcome, on Marx’s own principle the outcome tells us something about the ideas.

In short, you can put Marx back into the nineteenth century, but you can’t keep him there. He wasted a ridiculous amount of his time feuding with rivals and putting out sectarian brush fires, and he did not even come close to completing the work he intended as his magnum opus, “Capital.” But, for better or for worse, it just is not the case that his thought is obsolete. He saw that modern free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities, and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way back to Socrates—turning concepts that we think we understand and take for granted inside out—into a resource for grasping the social and economic conditions of our own lives.

CONTINUED:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/10/karl-marx-yesterday-and-today?mbid=social_facebook_aud_dev_kwjunsub-karl-marx-yesterday-and-today&kwp_0=252969