There is no strong leadership in Russia—Putin scrambles for respect and legitimacy in ways that only push those goals further from him. Invading other countries for conquest is not something people do any more—that’s what the UN is for. And rather than mindlessly respond in kind, the US and the UN are trying to have a dialogue with this thuggish government—because bombing the hell out of Russia has been on the table since JFK, but no president has wanted to be the one to start WWWIII. Besides which, bombing innocent Russians doesn’t get rid of the real problem—any more than the 9/11 attacks weakened America.
Unarmed Russian jets buzz our fleet, the Iranians’ motorboats hassle our missile cruisers—these are the acts of irresponsible children, not of strong leaders. The North Koreans starve while their dictator tests nuclear bombs and shoots off missiles (just like a real country—in the 50’s). Kim Jong Un seems blithely unaware of our potential to melt his entire country down to glass with a single button-push—but, again, the North Korean people don’t deserve to be attacked, only their child emperor does. Strong leadership? Please.
In an age of nuclear-fusion H-bombs and space stations, the question of military might is beside the point. Real strength, here in the present, where real people live, is a matter of control. When the US convinces a UN-based coalition to sanction these juvenile delinquents of the geopolitik, that’s power. And it couldn’t be done by an American President who acts without thought.
The flashy, trashy behavior that our enemies indulge in has no effect outside of a weekly news cycle—the steady, considered behavior of our country, and others, is what keeps the markets, trade, and commerce going around the globe. They offer their citizens nationalist rancor—we offer ours economic security (like food on the table). Granted, many of us still feel the sting of the economic crash—but that still beats the hell out of places where the common people take second place to the egos of their strong-man demagogues.
‘Strong Leadership’ can take many meanings—it can be the superficial judgment, as Trump and Pence use the phrase, or it can refer to the steadiness of nerve that Obama exhibits. I leave the choice to you, dear readers.
Friday’s here—and just as I often don’t get fully awake before noon, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up whenever the end of the week rolls around. Old and in poor health is no way to suck the marrow from life. But I find I have company, or rather, competition.
That is to say that I’ve just finished reading Julian Barnes’ excellent historical novel, “The Noise of Time: A Novel”, touching on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich—a Russian composer of the Soviet era, and a favorite of mine since my early teens. I clearly remember mentioning the name to my mother one day, mispronouncing it, and being surprised that she corrected my pronunciation of his name—firstly because I realized he was famous enough for my mother to know his name, and secondly because I had been enamored of his music for months, while saying his name wrong (I had been thinking of him as Shos-TOCK-ovich!)
The Russians take pride in their deep sadness—as an American, I’ll never get that, but I get it, kind of. Masochism, irony, and melancholy are tools I have used myself in defense against a dysfunctional reality. But my life, and my troubles, are of an American smallness, in comparison to Barnes’ description of the living hell Shostakovich found himself in. He was a sensitive composer trapped in Stalin’s Russia, forced to publicly denounce his own works, and the works of his hero, Stravinsky—and other close friends and respected musicians; in danger for years from ideologues and politicians trying to ferret out disloyalty, even in thoughts and feelings, especially among artists—and even more especially in composers who had achieved global fame.
The book reminded me of the stories I heard about Soviet Russians living in terror of anonymous squads who came and took them in the night, often never to be seen again—and about the ideological tyranny that deposed aesthetics as the yardstick against which their art was ‘measured’—and sometimes condemned, along with the artist’s life.
Stalin’s rule, up to 1953, was so bloody that upon his death and the ascension of Khrushchev, it was said that ‘the Soviet had become vegetarian’. Although it may be more proper to say that the Soviet ceased to be cannibalistic, since Stalin’s machine had been devouring his own people. And Shostakovich was apparently a pretty nervous fellow—at the height of the pseudo-ideological criticisms of his music, he spent every night, for weeks, waiting at the elevator to be taken away by the KGB so that they wouldn’t have to burst into his apartment and drag him away in front of his wife and child. Barnes writes that Dmitri was just one of many people who observed this nighttime ritual during the terror known as Stalin’s Cult of Personality. Shostakovich’s life was one horror show after another—and it didn’t help that he was fairly well-off, compared to the average Soviet Russian—that just gave him more to lose.
As a boy, my favorite of his works was the last movement of his fifth symphony—but as I matured, I learned to prefer the rest of the symphony. According to Barnes’ story, Shostakovich was forced to add the final ‘triumphal’ movement to the symphony because the foregoing movements were so unremittingly ‘pessimistic’—and so he composed the final movement ironically. To my callow ears, and to the politburo, it sounded glorious (which saved Shostakovich’s life, and career)—but as my tastes matured I came to find the last movement somehow brash and ugly, and prefer the music that comes before—and now I know why, I suppose. Much is made in the book of the fact that when confronted with brainless tyranny, the only safe rebellion is in irony—but that irony over time gets lost in itself.
This book is no happy story, but it is something perhaps better—a fascinating story about strange and awful truths, and the horrendous lies that hide them, for a time at least. I have long since given up hope of finding in great artists’ lives any kind of reflection or explanation of the exaltation of their creations—but this book actually matches up the bleakness heard in most of his music with the day-to-day life of its composer. I read it in one sitting—something I’m only pushed into nowadays by irresistibly good writing and an enthralling story.
Barnes quotes Shakespeare at one point, mentioning that his Sonnet LXVI resonated with the artists of Soviet Russia, particularly the line, “And art made tongue-tied by authority”. I had to go look at the whole poem and I am struck, not for the first time, by how apropos Shakespeare always is, no matter how modern we think we have become:
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
(Shakespeare, William (2011-03-24). Shakespeare’s Sonnets (p. 132). . Kindle Edition.)
I love that line about “And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,”—geniuses so often appear to fools as people who need to be ‘cured’, or at the very least, ‘corrected’. The poem as a whole is fitting for a Shostakovich biographical novel—he too was often tempted by thoughts of suicide, harried by the ubiquitous surplus of malevolent injustice crowding every aspect of his life.
That’s my take on the book—-lacking a segue, here’s two improvs from earlier today–hope you like them:
Most everyone is pretty excited about Harriet Tubman being put on the face of the twenty-dollar bill as of 2020. The news did manage to find this one yahoo, who gave the standard line about how he ‘respected’ Harriet Tubman and all, but there’s such a thing as tradition. Where do they find these people? Yes, racism is an old and venerated tradition in this country—the Confederate flag is tradition—murdering black people in the name of law and order is a fine old tradition. What would we do without tradition? Assholes.
And, speaking of—ain’t it great that Putin is re-starting the Cold War? This jamoke is increasing submarine activity throughout the world’s oceans as (get this) a response to the increasing rivalry. Rivalry? You want to rival the U.S., Vlad? Try stocking your supermarkets. Try putting a car in every garage. Russia has the greatest natural resources on Earth—and it ought to, it’s the biggest chunk of dirt there is—but they persist in starving and blaming the outside world for it. All that money they spend on their military—who the fuck wants to invade Russia? I sure as hell wouldn’t even go there on vacation.
I mean, I love Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Rachmaninoff, Chagall—lots of great Russian artists—a fabulous culture. But it is a culture borne of sadness and suffering. I guess we shouldn’t blame them—how many millions did Stalin kill, after Hitler failed to kill them all, after the Revolution failed to starve them all to death? They’ve had a rough century. Yet, instead of bettering themselves at home, they continue to look for some sort of world domination. Let me tell ya something, Russia—the USA has ‘world domination’, and you can have it. While you’re blowing all your cash on submarines, we’re sending most of ours off to try to feed and vaccinate every ungrateful hell-hole the world has to offer. We barely have enough left over to pay for the fighter jets we don’t really need.
This rise in nationalism is a real throw-back—a sign that most of the world is being run by octogenarians who still think like we live in pre-industrial times. Troops don’t take a field of battle anymore. Drones rain down death from a game console in Dubuque. Zika-bearing mosquitos pose a greater existential threat to the Americas than any army could possibly mount. A teenager with an I-Pad could wipe the databases of every bank in the world. Fuck nationalism. And submarines? Nuclear-missile submarines? What the actual fuck, Russia?
Actually, wait a minute—let’s talk about submarines. They are enclosed ecosystems with complex technology—kind of like the world is becoming—and on a submarine, everyone works together—or they all die on the bottom of the ocean. Working together is a very smart thing to do. Maybe that’s why we don’t do it—people don’t like to do the smart thing. Maybe we should declare the Earth a space-submarine and draft everyone into a world navy—a little discipline and cooperation goes a long way. But the worst people always end up in charge of things—its nature’s way of keeping humans animals—oh well, back to the drawing board.
Putin has kicked the hornet’s nest—he may have been forced by circumstances beyond his control to throw his weight around and make Russia’s military relevant (Do you know anyone who wants to invade that charming country?) but he obviously hasn’t been paying attention to America’s forays into the Middle East. Didn’t he know how much American blood and treasure we’ve spilled there—and what have we accomplished? With few exceptions, other countries, including Russia, have sat on the sidelines and waited for us to bring capitalism there, so they could find new business partners—why would any sane leader allow his or her nation to become equally embroiled—without even teaming up with the existing effort? Will Russian mothers allow Putin to waste their children supporting Assad—and why?
Iran has voted in favor of the nuclear-disarmament agreement—a blow to the hard-liners there, but a good thing for all of us. American meddling in that country made them hate us—with good reason. Anything we can do to restore good relations with the Iranian people would benefit everyone.
The magazine Playboy has announced that it will stop publishing photos of nude women—a victory for women’s rights and dignity? ‘Fraid not. They simply need to stop shelling out cash for the same pictures anyone can get on the inter-web—not to mention try to keep a magazine relevant in a post-paper society. There will still be plenty to ogle for those that still subscribe—just not full nudity. I always felt their decision to go that far damaged the ‘brand’ anyway—in a world where there are naked pictures of women, who needs Playboy? If your brand is titillation, why marry the cow? Sorry gals—that just slipped out.
I’m so excited by this week’s VOD movie offerings that I can’t decide which to watch first—“San Andreas” (starring the Rock) or “Tomorrowland” (starring the Clooney). I split the difference and watched “Entourage—The Movie” while I made up my mind. Everyone said it was awful (no surprise) and I always feel compelled to watch something everyone hates—I usually like those movies. In this case, I’d say that if you enjoyed the series, and you don’t mind paying a premium to watch an extended final episode—you’re good. If you wanted a movie, well….
Now “San Andreas” will undoubtedly be noisy and have lots of quick cuts—a guaranteed headache, especially if I watch it after seeing one movie today, already. “Tomorrowland”, on the other hand, is just the kind of movie I love—sci-fi, futurism, happy ending (I assume). I don’t know if I want that to be ruined by my being already tired from watching “Entourage”, either. Still can’t decide. Maybe not watch either until tomorrow. I was enjoying Kathryn Grayson on TMC early today—something where she co-starred with Mario Lanza—maybe that’s what makes it hard to pick a pay-video movie—nothing in my cart has the oomph of old Hollywood—modern movies rarely do. I can’t wait for the new Spielberg, with Hanks in it—that’s definitely got a shot.
I didn’t watch the GOP debates—those people have me reaching for the remote just from a sound bite on the news—there was no way I’d listen to their idiocy for hours at a time. But tonight’s the Democrat debate—should I watch? I’m already for Hillary. I already like the sound of Bernie better, but I know he can’t win nationally, so why torture myself? And the other three—well, if you can name them, you’ve got more on the ball than I do. People have been assuming Hillary will be elected our next president ever since she stood aside for Obama—and I know the media needs drama grist for their mills—but I’ve made my decision, and I think I’d rather watch something else. If I had the energy to really follow politics, I’d get involved, not watch it on CNN and tell myself I was involved.
I’ve considered politics—after years of getting furious at incompetence in public service, I’ve often thought about it. But all we civilians get are the sound-bites—politics is a long hard slog through meetings and conferences and conversations with other politicians. When I vote these days, I’m not only rooting for a candidate—I’m grateful that they’re doing what I could never have the patience for. I hope that they will do well by us, but I don’t make the mistake of assuming they have an easy job. Only the bad politicians have easy jobs—the good ones work like dogs, and for few rewards. Look at poor old Jimmy Carter—a great man ousted from his job by a movie star, after cleaning up Nixon’s mess and getting Americans to believe in the system again. No, I’d just as soon light myself on fire as become a politician.
16 Russian Folk Songs
(Covers from the Russian Songbook)
01) All Throughout The Great Wide World I Wandered
02) Do Not Scold Me And Do Not Reproach Me
03) The Boundless Expanse Of The Sea
04) My Sweetheart
05) No Sounds From The City Are Heard
06) Do Not Awaken My Memories
07) Stenka Razin (From Beyond The Island)
08) Snow Flurries
09) The Cliff of the Volga
10) The Story of the Coachman
11) The Little Bell
12) Farewell To Happiness
13) The Slender Mountain Ash
15) Oh, You Dear Little Night
16) Down The Volga River