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WOID #V-34. The Ballot [III]

["The art of our time is an art of cowardice, a triumph of the trivial,
a squandering of treasure..." - Leonard Baskin, quoted approvingly in
the Chronicle of Higher Education for February 2, 2001.]

A great Russian singer used to tell how he had given his first
professional concert in Germany at the close of Word War I. He began
with Brahms' "Four Serious Songs," which the composer had written as he
was dying. The cycle begins with Ecclesiastes 3, 19,"For that which
befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts." As the singer reached the
phrase, "so that a man hath no preeminence over a beast" an elderly
Prussian officer tottered to his feet and shouted: "You, Sir, perhaps,
but not I!"

I'm intrigued by the fashionable pessimism now peddled in the Chronicle
of Higher Education and elsewhere. Even in the eighteen-fifties
political differences could be reduced to a conflict between those who
believed in the perfectibility of mankind, and those who believed in
Original Sin. Little has changed. In one week we have gone from a
government where naughty boys get caught and apologize, to one in which
there are only the Elect and the Damned - in which it matters not what
a person does, but what is in his "heart." It's a world in which people
must be restrained, or kicked, or prodded, because they cannot improve
on their own: there is no growth and change, only sin and redemption.

It's been said that Americans, even the progressives, believe Reality
itself is reactionary. That means nothing except that, confronted by
overwhelming injustice, we turn pessimistic ourselves. Gramsci once
spoke of the problem of the optimism of the will and the pessimism of
the intellect. American progressives love that phrase - so long as you
drop the part about pessimism and optimism being a problem. For the
Loyal Opposition, from the Nation Magazine to the New York Times to the
Chronicle, powerlessness is not a problem at all - it's a relief.

The "Four Serious Songs" end with a moving paean to Faith, Hope, and
Charity. I've always thought that last section was beside the point. To
respond to the philosophy of Predestination it's not enough to claim
that "all people are good" - a ridiculous assumption that disarms you
before your enemies. It's to admit that change is possible, and that
one must work towards change. Sixty-odd years ago Theodor Adorno
proposed that Art, Art in its highest form, was revolutionary because
it was utopian. And yet, art should never be so removed from us that
its perfection stands as a consolation, not a promise.

Pessimism and consolation: those are the bogeymen before us. In Bar-le-
Duc, France, there is a late Medieval tomb - "transis," they're called -
 showing a rotting skeleton, upright, holding up his heart to God. He
looks a bit like a basketball player at the net. He looks a lot like
the Governor.

Paul T Werner, New York

WOID: A journal of visual language

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