1. “Unmaking” Works
As I fly across the Atlantic Ocean, I am contemplating my schedule over the coming days. In a few hours, I am to meet the Times of London for an interview about an opera of mine called BHUTTO; a work which I had completed in full score a few months ago and which marks the culmination of a decade of work and several decades of practice.
Such a work required me to build; a lot of building and making was required from me as the composer of the work. In order to for the opera at hand to stand together or to exist at all, I had to first compose it. Such an immense amount of work also requires time in order for the labor to be done and, consequently, work requires support and investment on the part of those men and women whose passion it is to make time and space in the world as we know it so that the artists whom they love are able to do their work. That is why, when I finished the score in proper, one of my first tasks (though I was exhausted) was to compose the following email immediately informing my supporters of it’s completion:
On Jun 7, 2018, Mohammed Fairouz wrote:
Dear L, M, N, O, P and Q,
The first ideas for BHUTTO came to me nearly a decade ago and it was some eight years ago that I decided in earnest to pursue the path of composing an opera on this fascinating, tragic and ultimately triumphant figure of our time. The process of learning about the life of Benazir Bhutto has lead me through the most complex and heart-wrenching passages of human memory and theatrical history. In an effort to learn the human truth about Benazir, I have been forced to try my best to pierce through the importance and noise of tomorrow and row my boat atavistically back through time. In it, I have encountered fascinating observations about poetic perception and I have come face to face with the uniquely new disfigurements that our era (and it’s wars) have brought as an affront to aesthetic beauty and truth. Above all, I have tried to tell the story of a woman who triumphs in the long homeward voyage that leads her back to her long-lost father and finds her re-united with the legends of her earth.
I hope that you will find this to be an operatic experience that affirms the preciousness of the breath of life (mustn’t the air of every aria affirm that to us?) and the awful grace that keeps that force moving forward whether we like it or not. Here is BHUTTO. May you find a work of art that you are happy to have your names associated with.
I hope to see you all in November and to travel with you to the premiere of our opera. And I thank you with my heart for your support of this endeavor without which it would not have been written.
I remain your friend, sincerely,
The responses to my message were varied. Responses came from some of these supporters and not from others. But one particularly striking response caught my continued attention. It reads as follows:
“Thanks for keeping us informed.
We are thrilled this part of your climb through the emotional and historical past is achieved. Now come the adjustments and practical solutions, through the rehearsals and introspection, which will burnish your music.
All the Best,
The message above may seem like a perfectly expected (even warm) response to my news. It fascinated me, however, for its complete lack of mention of the one process which an individual who commissions music would reasonably be understood to hold as a primary concern: the composition of the score which they have commissioned. I had composed a score which I had started meticulous and detailed work on nearly a decade ago and which I had written out note-by-note and page by page over eight years. What was achieved here was not a sketch; not part of a process; certainly not “part of [my] climb through the emotional and historical past.”
What was accomplished was a work which held together and within which the almost countless details of orchestration, counterpoint, pacing, staging considerations, text setting and many many other technical details had been encountered and solved head on; they had been solved through almost a decade of compositional work (daily compositional work for which I have earned a considerable writing callus and for which a lifetime of writing, education, learning and professional experience had prepared me).
I wrote out the hundreds and hundreds of pages that make up the hundreds of thousands of notes and the (literally) millions of decisions about technical matters which are manifest in the rhythms, tempi, timing, word-setting, pacing, melodies, vocal writing etc that went into the this score:
Doing all work (building all this) on mere speculation, surely, must strike anyone as a foolish task.
“Now,” I was told the that “come the adjustments and practical solutions, through the rehearsals and introspection, which will burnish your music.” And yet, I had solved the problems of the work at hand. That fact accounted, in part, for my exhaustion when I was composing the email relaying news of it’s completion. The work which still needed to be done by the production staff, director and others in the rehearsals so that the performers to be able to mount a production was not work which I needed to do.
In fact, the work which I did and completed is the reason why these performers now have the material in order to be able to do anything at all. What would be the source of activity in “rehearsals” let alone the “introspection” on a given work if there was no opera to rehearse or think about?
As I write these words, I am flying; some 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. My flight is not a natural phenomenon nor is it an experiment. It is an operation much like the rehearsal and performance of my opera will be an operation. I could, in fact, be dead at the time of performance (as is the case with a great many composers whose work is still performed today) and nevertheless receive excellent performances based on the score which I have completed (my work).
Less than an hour ago, I felt the very same awe and gratitude which I have felt every single time I’ve experienced the motions of the runway; an aero plane taking off and carrying us into flight. I don’t recall my first flight; I was an infant when my parents carried me onto an aero plane for the first time. But for as long as I remember flying, I also remember that feeling of awesome gratitude as inseparable from the experience of flight itself. When I was 8 years old, I recall the discovery of tears of joy which were streaming down my face as I looked out of the window of an airline bound for London from Dubai. I saw the earth recede away and saw familiar objects escape from my field of vision. I heard the music of flight in the motion rather than the sound of the airline. The entire sensory experience ignited my imagination. I would have time in the years to come to think of the journeys that humanity was bound to take and to study the journeys that humanity has taken to bring me and my fellow passengers to the moment of take-off. But for the 8-year-old me, there was nothing but the present; the moment of astonishing unity during which the past and the future blend into one another for a distinct un-capturable and yet ever-present atom of time. There was nothing but the present. Nothing but awe.
Although I have flown hundreds of times in the decades since, this feeling has never left me or failed to move me profoundly. Back on earth, in the dealings of business which are placed as an arbitrary and often useless prerequisite to doing real work, I (too often) allowed the dazzling mess of confounded tongues and folded lies to overshadow the memory of this awe. In the face of contending with those who insist of all that is petty, mean spirited and inelegant, it became all-too-easy to momentarily forget this gratitude; to overlook the most basic knowledge I had: that the works of humanity will prevail over the works of anti-humanity.
But any lapse in my memory of civilization has always proven to be transitory and only momentary by means of deflecting negativity by venting my own frustration with those who stand in the way of creation and progress. On the whole, the trend of my life has been a constant one.
The more I have learned about the workings of the humane labor which was done over the eras and continents and which has been preserved for us, the more I have found that this feeling of awe has, if anything, grown over the years. I know more today about the harmonic motion and the interplay of densities which are carrying me and my fellow passengers as we travel on the wind. In the harmony of human take-off, I have found more inspiration than any inspiration which I could possibly draw from the flight of birds or their songs. The falcon is elegant but there is no competition with the creations of the Supreme Being as far as consort of spirit and function nor is there any competing with the creative genius contained within the breath of life. The airline in which I am currently traveling will seem obscure to generations to come as far as the mere technology of it is concerned. But it will not seem obscure to those who can see the human genius which guides this technology; this beautiful ars technica.
Those who can trace the long arch of art and learning that has brought us to this moment and that will carry us to the next moment will understand that the knowledge, the human genius at the core of this flight has been eternal and unchanging. This genius will be applied in many ways, it is true and for us there is no competition with the nature of birds; there is only the appreciation of our own nature: the nature of man as maker; the nature of man as one who learns and invents; of one who reinvents and relearns.
It is that genius which inspires me. These words are the best ones which I have in this moment to articulate the deep gratitude which, having flowered within me, now blossoms and finds manifestation in the work which I, myself, have done following the work which I find that others like me have offered; gratitude to those men and women who have shown me, through their example, how to labor, how to wait and how to look into the face of eternity.
There are no golden ages or rebirths; there are no times which suggest that the work of the current moment cannot reach the heights of human genius whose products were accomplished in the past and must remain the subject of worship rather than embrace the truth of motion. The age of gold has always been dead; the age of genius has never died.
It is not arrogance on my part to understand the nature of my contribution and to be fully aware of that which I am doing in my work as it builds on (and ties together) the products of human genius which I have studied and which are the very hand that guide my practice. It is not arrogance for a scientist like Newton to know the nature of his vision and to understand how he has come to “see further” as he put it, “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It is not conceited or self-interested for an artist to see his work clearly and know the exact nature of the footprints which he places in the sands of time or, given the ability to observe it, the vastness of his perception as far as the universality of their applicability. The great works of the past are not “great works” to be weaponized against the living; there is no competition between any man who seeks the truth. I can place my own work very clearly within the context of my time and the humane works which have been preserved for me. I understand the works which I make and I cherish the reason which was granted to me so that I may study and recreate the works of great men and, yes, I understand the moments in which I have reached to their heights and beyond (in my own way). It is not arrogance to realize this. It is not self-indulgence to understand the nature of one’s accomplishments when I can guide you through the works which I have made with my own hand and mind as factual manifestations of my awareness.
My consciousness (and achievement) of technical excellence in every step of my musical construction and expression and my awareness of what it is that I am expressing gives me great joy. My ability to demonstrate that expression critically in addition to making it self-evident in the works which have made and which have shared concert programs with the great composers who came before me… all this gives me great joy.
It is not arrogance to feel joy in touching the sublimity of the great artists whom we admire; they were not preserved for us in order to worship them. Those men and women who claim to worship the artists of any “golden age” can only pretend to do so since they are, through the very act of treating human accomplishment and labor as a natural force or as an inheritance which must be blindly “respected,” they are making a statement that renders the works of the greatest makers as unworthy of rational engagement (in their eyes).
I have touched sublimity and will continue to do so till the day I die. I can do nothing else with my life. It is not an example of opinionated self-advancement or of arrogance on my part when I make these statements and make them clearly.
It would be, dear reader, an act of the most profound ingratitude on my part to say anything less or to say it any less categorically or clearly; ingratitude to all that I have learned (not inherited) from my exemplary predecessors and contemporaries; ingratitude to my God-given gift of reason and spirit (a gift given so generously to humanity); ingratitude to my own perception of reality from which I draw inspiration for my work and further appreciation for the work of others…
I would be committing an act of gross ingratitude against the human capacity for scientific growth, development and learning which thrusts us into the future as well as a similarly gross ingratitude for the artists; those captains of the boats which sail back against the current of time as they ceaselessly and endlessly build a house of memory which bears humanity back into the past and, in so doing, makes the future (the “present” which will happen a nanosecond from now and is now happening) comprehensible…
In the face of contending with those who insist on advancing all that is petty, mean spirited lazy and inelegant, it can be all-too-easy to momentarily forget the gratitude which I must feel and which I will carry forward. I have faced deception and deceit; I have been betrayed by those who have lied about love and by those who have lied about the human spirit more generally. But I have learned, by now, to take care that I never overlook the most basic knowledge I have: that the works of humanity will prevail over the works of anti-humanity.
On this matter, I remembered what the Quran had taught me (words which I have carried with me since childhood):
“Say: ‘Not equal are things that are bad and things that are good, even though the abundance of the bad may dazzle thee; so fear Allah, O ye that understand; that (so) ye may prosper.’”
I have gained further insight into these words; they have been a solace to me through the sufferings which I have experienced in my embrace of living. They have been a companion to the kindnesses which have helped to mine a lucky life. The quantity of destructive actions do not produce works which last. Only the good things which are made by reasoning and constructive human hands remain. Only the good things can remain.
If God created the integer and the number, I thought to myself, Al-Khawarizmi brought them into the light so that humankind could perceive them and learn that which we had not known before. His spirit, ennobled and taught humanity how to make the conceptual leap by which we could see the density of flight and with which the artisans who crafted this vessel in which I’m currently flying gave us it’s wings.
Al-Khawarizmi’s spirit is carrying me and a few thousand souls through the skies high above Atlas tonight.
How could I doubt the direction of this creative arch of human genius when, just a few hours ago, I was sitting in a vessel parked firmly on earth which sped into motion and, through the grace and application of human genius, managed once again to astonish me and take off into flight? How could I doubt the spirit of great men who calculated motion and density and the work of those who built these engines? I cannot and will not doubt the humane spirit that carries us on the wind tonight.
Rather, I will continue to work and to advance that spirit out of sheer love, awe and gratitude for it.
2. The Heart of the Ocean
There are many morality tales that have been drawn from the events surrounding the maiden voyage of the Titanic. I would like to consider the example of this historic event from a basic artistic perspective. Let’s start with two facts that are regarded to be indisputable. The Titanic was a ship that was built and wrecked.
It took a lot of ingenuity to build the Titanic as well as her sister ships. It took a few minutes of terrific carelessness to sink it. The damage done to the vessel by colliding it with the iceberg. This collision was caused by stupidity and sheer misfortune. Thomas Andrews was a brilliant builder and engineer who had built the vessel to withstand terrible damage of up to four compartments. The misjudgment of junior officers caused a grotesque disfigurement as they dragged the ship’s starboard side against the ice causing multiple hull breaches across five full compartments. Andrews had to go and see the damage wreaked on the ship that he built. He then gave his life to women and children who needed to board life boats. A creative person made the ship. Careless people made the decisions that destroyed it. Andrews knew that he wasn’t a god nor did he come up with the moniker that described the Titanic as “unsinkable.” That wasn’t even created by the marketing teams. It was invented by the general public and adapted cleverly by a few people who prefer to focus their lives around devastation rather than learn about what people make. Despite this, there isn’t a single major documentary on Titanic that focuses on her construction.
Instead, there is an almost universal focus on the destruction of the ship. In essays, documentaries and other media, “experts” adopt the snobbish tones of insidious intent. Every failure of negligence or violence is seen as an opportunity to admonish the creative bulk of humanity with a warning that says “watch out” and “rise at your own risk.” These admonitions are infused with a variant of “don’t let hubris get the better of you” and “you said it was unsinkable; hope you’ve finally learned not to build so fast”…
Nobody who was involved in the actual construction of Titanic said it was “unsinkable.” It is hard to imagine a meaningful response to anybody who believes that humanity ought to be perfect and that every imperfection or mistake that people make as reason to discontinue the human enterprise altogether. These are people who “discover” real or imagined negatives with the same euphoric excitement which Ive observed as the prevalent attitude to learning or making among people who are serious about learning and making (poetics).
The worst of these documentaries and essays are the ones made by those who feign healthy skepticism in the cause of uncovering some “hidden” injustice. This often takes the form of effecting a general (but insincere) concern for “public safety” and well-being. Other tactics are also used and new ones are invented. One reason for this is to poorly conceal a concerted and obvious effort on the part of destructive people who seek an outlet to celebrate criminality and destruction without engaging in it or being held accountable for advocating an environment sympathetic to relegating as suspect the growth and creativity that threatens their relevance. It tells creators (consciously or intuitively) that their innate human urge to create, to generate form out of apparent chaos, does not align with the reality of the “world today.” It repels the public at large with fallacies that creative works are doomed to fail and that the young artists, builders and designers of promise in their cities and towns should be discouraged from pursuing their aspirations before they begin their journeys.
Limiting the vast majorities of documentaries or articles about the Titanic to the sinking is emblematic of a practice that finds us “uncovering” destructive content to fill the most potentially creative and constructive (certainly the largest) media environment that human beings have ever had recourse to using as a force for advancing creative practice. The ubiquitous question is “How did Titanic sink?” That question can easily be complimented by one that would occur to any non-cynical person wondering at how a 52,310 tonne ship manages to float on water.
If we recall the attitudes of the curators at John Jay College who put together the works created in art classes at Guantanamo Bay by prisoners who were alleged or convicted of terrorism. We will recall that press reviews of the exhibit (written by art critics and non-art critics alike) consisted of near-universal praise for the items on display. I would like to re-examine the passages in those reviews having to do with the discussion of a drawing that we are told is based on a picture of the Titanic as well as the fact that the prisoners watched James Cameron’s film which takes it’s name from the ship.
Let’s start with the following from a report which described the United States as a terrible and arbitrary abuser of power:
“Muhammad Ansi painted the grand Titanic – that ill-fated ship – after he, and other prisoners, were permitted to watch the film. In his painting, the infamous ship – one that was sold to the world as so advanced and powerful that it was unsinkable – is propelling itself purposefully into a future that its makers and financers imagined they controlled.”
The New Yorker Magazine speaks of the sea as something that can “mean danger, loss and separation, or a difficult uncertain journey” which we should consider in counterpoint to the final symbolism of the ocean in that film as a deeply natural entity containing life, death, discovery and everything else it contains rather than as an artificially dangerous monolith.
The film begins with a group of excavators searching through the wreckage of Titanic for a diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean” only to find an old woman named Rose who offers them a story which leaves the previously hardened and cynical “modern” men in tears. “A woman’s heart” says an old Rose after recounting her story, “is a deep ocean of secrets”:
“Lewis Bodine: We never found anything on Jack… there’s no record of him at all.
Old Rose: No, there wouldn’t be, would there? And I’ve never spoken of him until now… Not to anyone… Not even your grandfather… A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets. But now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me… in every way that a person can be saved. I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists now… only in my memory.”
Here is the quote from the New Yorker:
“The sea can also mean danger, loss, and separation, or a difficult, uncertain journey, and not all the work in the show is so sanguine. Ansi’s pieces—sixteen, the most of anyone—include[d] a painting of… the Titanic, still intact and sailing toward its doom, which puzzled me until I learned that Ansi had been shown the James Cameron movie by a female interrogator who was trying to create a rapport with him. (The catalogue notes that he “was entranced by the film, but recognized the attempted manipulation of being shown sexual scenes while sitting beside a woman.)”
There nothing puzzling about this situation. Considering that the entire machina of the story’s tragic crux is presented by the excavators to the old lady once she arrives on their ship:
Lewis: Okay here we go. She hits the berg on the starboard side, right? She kind of bumps along punching holes like Morse code, dit dit dit, along the side, below the water line. Then the forward compartments start to flood. Now as the water level rises, it spills over the watertight bulkheads, which unfortunately don’t go any higher then E deck. So now as the bow goes down, the stern rises up. Slow at first, then faster and faster until finally she’s got her whole ass sticking up in the air… and that’s a big ass, we’re talking 20, 30,000 tons. Okay? And the hull’s not designed to deal with that pressure, so what happens? “Krrrrkkk!” She splits. Right down to the keel. And the stern falls back level. Then as the bow sinks it pulls the stern vertical and then finally detaches. Now the stern section just kind of bobs there like a cork for a couple of minutes, floods and finally goes under about 2:20 am two hours and forty minutes after the collision. The bow section planes away, landing about half a mile away going about 20, 30 knots when it hits the ocean floor. “Boom, Plcccggg!”… Pretty cool, huh?
Old Rose: Thank you for that fine forensic analysis, Mr. Bodine. Of course, the experience of it was… somewhat different.
The mathematical figures mentioned by the character of Lewis in this monologue are not simply hazy as he recounts them (“we’re talking 20, 30,000 tons”; “going about 20, 30 knots”); they are also figures that were known and identified in either in the engineering and making of the vessel or in the investigations following it’s sinking over a hundred years ago. The haziness results from a lack of conviction (care for the scientific inquiry at hand) that is part of Lewis Bodine’s character as designed by the screenplay. It is not based in a lack of scientific knowledge as the exact figures are available to him should he wish to look. Creating the conditions for Bodine’s monologue itself to exist within the exact frames in which it exists is no small feat. For the monologue to succeed, it has to fall into an exact temporal place (down to the second) in the scene. It also needs to deliver a register and tone that is brash and careless and lock it into time in a way that the art form of film demands of the artist. Cameron does all this but also maneuvers the character motifs of carelessness into Bodine’s monologue above so that it provides another layer of exposition to the surface exposition (the “forensic analysis”) that draws on previous expressions of clumsiness on Bodines part into the pervasive momentum of disaster that we know will end in the destruction of the ship. The common element that binds the “forensic analysis” to the overall drama is the motif of heedless carelessness in Bodine’s character that causes the artistic exposition to be possible at the same time as the “forensic” one. This is created so precisely by Cameron and used as a device to link Bodine with the character of Ismay as imagined on the Titanic in Rose’s story.
There would be no reason to watch the film as a work of art if we were to stop at the level of the forensics. The most interesting thing about the film, of course, is not the disaster itself. That could easily be covered through an historical survey in documentary form. If one knows that the truths which result from artistic inquiry are as meaningful as forensically arrived-at truths and just as necessary to understand then we will consider that it is the new elements of the film that make it a moving work of art. The artistic elements introduced to us (the dramatis personae, the score, the sequencing and all the other devices of artistic storytelling that are, of course, not predicted by because they are not the concern or capability of forensics). As far as the film is concerned, the destruction of the ship is most interesting when taken in relation to the artwork’s principle elements (the characters, dramatic devices, and other objects that result from a reliance on it’s purely artistic elements as they relate to the world).
A scene of sexual intimacy as well as a scene during which Rose is drawn in the nude by her lover whom she loses on the Titanic comprise two scenes in a film that is over three hours long and so it is curious that the curator of the John Jay exhibit chose to uncritically accept the word of the suspected terrorist regarding what would be considered to be misconduct on the part of the female US soldier (“the catalogue notes that he ‘was entranced by the film, but recognized the attempted manipulation of being shown sexual scenes while sitting beside a woman’”).
Considering that the families of the innocent people who perished in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 currently live with the memories of their loved ones in their hearts, it should be perfectly clear that the “attempted manipulation” that Thompson refers to is coming from the detainee and not the US soldier.
But Ms. Thomspon is concerned with other things as evidenced by the lines that follow in The New Yorker:
“Erin Thompson, an assistant professor at John Jay and one of the show’s curators, told me that the detainees have to be careful not to show anger in their art lest they compromise their chance for release…”
In the New Yorker they describe “the Titanic, still intact and sailing toward its doom” as though the ship was built to sink. The report in Al Jazeera read like this:
“Muhammad Ansi painted the grand Titanic – that ill-fated ship – after he, and other prisoners, were permitted to watch the film. In his painting, the infamous ship – one that was sold to the world as so advanced and powerful that it was unsinkable – is propelling itself purposefully into a future that its makers and financers imagined they controlled.”
Titanic was not fated to sink nor were it’s constructive elements or the attitudes of poetic construction to blame in any way for their exact opposites (carelessness resulting in destruction). It was built to sail and it sunk as a result of grievous human error. The character of Thomas Andrews rendered into James Cameron’s movie is an engineer and a builder who is proud of his work and apologetic to the souls on board on behalf of the men of commerce whose desire to break records of speed contributed to the bluster surrounding the ship as well as it’s sinking. Those men never apologized in the film and, as in the case of Bruce Ismay who survived the disaster by placing himself in a lifeboat in the place of women and children (as per company policy), history does not indicate that they apologized in “real” life.
The ubiquitous question is “how did Titanic sink?” That question can easily be complimented by one that would occur to any non-cynical person wondering at how a 52,310 tonne ship manages to float on water. What if the ubiquitous question was one that embraced the basic function of art? What would it look like if we had documentary after documentary and book after book that satisfied our curiosity about all things concerned with construction rather than explanations of how we effected our biggest failings as people followed by details of the destruction that follows failure?
As it pertains to Titanic, the result would be a fascinating inquiry into how elegantly balanced design choices juggle the densities of iron, air and water with the overall aesthetic and functionality that informed every decision of the designers and engineers. This act of construction is an impressive and difficult accomplishment of time, patience and the elegant drawing from generations of accumulated knowledge in ship-building and much else. The negligent or erroneous people who rammed Titanic into the side of an iceberg and carelessly ripped the vessel apart by causing a series of lacerations that forced water into five compartments. Repaying the work of builders and makers by breaking their creations is behavior that registers as ungrateful even before the effort to brand the constructive principle itself as being “hubristic and arrogant” begins.
Thomas Andrews built a magnificent vessel and human neglect wrecked it through a lack of attentiveness and perhaps even the inability of junior officers to actually use the ship properly. And yet, the narrative blames the constructive forces that built the ship rather than the carelessness that deformed it. Where are the documentaries on the construction of the Titanic? No ship was built to withstand what they put her through. The talentless use the myth of Titanic to cast blame on human ingenuity as a whole is a hallmark of the assertion of ego amongst destructively inclined people. They had been doing it the same thing before Titanic and they have been doing the same thing since Titanic. The tragedy of April 14th, 1912 was simply another point on a distrustful and distrusting roadmap which leads to the validation of the conviction that must inform any destructive outlook: that the creative work of man is nothing more than folly, piety and even weakness.
I followed the advancement of this narrative as Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center was built and then I saw the expression of satisfaction when the buildings proved to be difficult to occupy and were deem a failure because they did not immediately fulfill their purpose of advancing “world trade.” By the time that the Towers began to enjoy serious success in the 90s, they were attacked. This didn’t avert people from continuing to work in and enjoy the Towers. In 2001, terrorists misused airplanes to bring two structures that reached for the sky tumbling down to earth just as carelessness took the Titanic, a ship that was capable of virtually gliding on the surface of the North Atlantic, to the depths of the ocean.
Only in the relation of an object to the human beings that create them can they assume any meaning to us or be imbued with meaning by us. Science cannot be discounted but it must be accepted together with all forms of truth including artistic truth. After all, in the story of the Titanic, the fictional excavator Lewis Bodine admits it. “We never found anything on Jack…” he says. “There’s no record of him at all.”
Rose, in her old age, reminds us why we cannot afford to stop attending to art and, more immediately, why we came to see a film in which the basic outcome was predetermined by history.
“No, there wouldn’t be, would there?” she says. “And I’ve never spoken of him until now… Not to anyone…” Turning to her granddaughter, she then adds: “Not even your grandfather… A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets. But now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me… in every way that a person can be saved. I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists now… only in my memory.”
At the end of the film, and immediately before her peaceful death in a warm bed surrounded by pictures documenting a life well-lived, Rose takes the material object that is so coveted by the young men on the ship and flings the Heart of the Ocean into the Atlantic. The diamond sinks and is joined with the wreck of the Titanic. Without making the things that we make, human beings are unable to understand anything possible. Without the object of the Titanic being made, we would not have Rose’s story (or the film it was made for). And in turn, without Rose’s story, there would be no man named Jack Dawson and no human form or name would be meaningful.
The following cablegram, despatched by the White Star Line from its New York office, described what Tommie did:
‘After accident, Andrews ascertained damage, advised passengers put heavy clothing, prepare leave vessel. Many sceptical about seriousness damage, but impressed by Andrews’ knowledge, personality, followed his advice, saved their lives. He assisted many women, children to lifeboats. When last seen, officers say was throwing overboard deck chairs, other objects, to people in water. His chief concern safety of everyone but himself.’
In his home town of Comber, the life of Thomas Andrews Junior is commemorated by the Memorial Hall, built by public subscription and opened in 1915. Andrews’ body was never recovered from the Atlantic, but he is remembered on the family grave with the words: “Pure, just, generous, affectionate and heroic. He gave his life that others might be saved.”
“163 INT. BRIDE / CHARTROOM
Andrews unrolls a big drawing of the ship across the chartroom table. It is
a side elevation, showing all the watertight bulkheads. His hands are
shaking. Murdoch and Ismay hover behind Andrews and the Captain.
When can we get underway, do you think?
Smith glares at him and turns his attention to Andrews’ drawing. The
builder points to it for emphasis as he talks.
Water 14 feet above the keel in ten minutes… in the forepeak… in all
three holds… and in boiler room six.
Five compartments. She can stay afloat with the first four compartments
breached. But not five. Not five. As she goes down by the head the water
will spill over the tops of the bulkheads… at E Deck… from one to the
next… back and back. There’s no stopping it.
The pumps buy you time… but minutes only. From this moment, no matter
what we do, Titanic will founder.
But this ship can’t sink!
She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can. And she will. It is a
Smith looks like he has been gutpunched.
How much time?
An hour, two at most.
Ismay reels as his dream turns into his worst nightmare.”
Art is predicated on the constructive principle; it cannot exist without objects. That is why the presence of confusion as to “what is art?” as it pertains to the most basic condition of art (creation) speaks of a crisis in our understanding of ourselves. Humanity is profoundly and inextricably intertwined with the things we make.
Humanity’s relationship to the objects we make is how we learn and form memory. It is only through it’s relation to “the heart of a woman” that the Heart of the Ocean (as well as the Titanic itself and all the other objects) derive a meaning that is full and an existence that is not only present but also filled with dignity and grace.
3. “Crimes of Art”
“Making art is a profoundly human urge.”
These are the words that introduced me to an exhibition that was erected at John Jay College in New York City displaying the art-works of several prisoners being held in detention at Guantamano Bay. The article which appeared in Al Jazeera, is extraordinary in many ways. It continues as follows:
“Viewing this art has allowed thousands of visitors at John Jay College and elsewhere a chance to see that its makers are human beings. These detainees have been treated in fundamentally dehumanizing ways, from torture to denial of fair trials, and their art reminds us that we cannot ignore their condition.”
Society and (humanity at large is “cruel” while the detainees (whom we are already taught are going to be called “artists”) are careful practitioners who work for months to construct something; that something is “fragile”:
“For each of his model ships, Mr. al-Alwi ruffles cardboard into feathers to create an eagle-shaped prow. As he spends months creating each one, he imagines that he himself is an eagle, soaring over the sea. Unless the military reverses its cruel new policy, he can no longer even launch his fragile creations into the world, to be free in his place.”
“Mr. al-Alwi is considered a low value detainee, but is being held indefinitely. His art is his refuge.”
“The sails of Mr. al-Alwi’s ships are made from scraps of old T-shirts. A bottle-cap wheel steers a rudder made with pieces of a shampoo bottle, turned with delicate cables of dental floss. The only tool Mr. al-Alwi uses to make these intricate vessels is a pair of tiny, snub-nosed scissors, the kind a preschooler might use. It is all he is allowed in his cell.”
“My colleagues” said Emma Thomspon, (one of the curators who teaches “Art Crime” at John Jay College) “and I curated this exhibit after learning that many lawyers who have worked with detainees have file cabinets stuffed full of prisoners’ art. In the atmosphere of surveillance and control that is Guantánamo, these artworks are among the only ways detainees have to communicate with the outside world.” (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/11/27/opinion/guantanamo-art-prisoners.html)
Then there are beaming accounts that boast of critical acclaim:
“The exhibition features 36 paintings and sculptures made by detainees at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, co-curated by art crime professor Erin Thompson, archivist Paige Laino and artist and poet Charles Shields. Following its opening in early October this year, “Ode to the Sea” began to receive overwhelmingly positive press.”
We are squarely asked (on the assumption that we agree with this “truth” that the reporter has found): “Why exactly are these works of art so powerful?”
The readers are then told that these men are being subjugated. We are also wrongly told that they have not been formally charged with any crime. The files on several detainees (such as this one which I retrieved simply because he is an often-discussed detainee in this exhibit: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/82826/isn-28-moath-hamza-ahmed-al-alwi-jtf-gtmo.pdf). One favors Habeas Corpus and the Geneva Convention as lynchpins that bind the entire civilized world. But the question of granting “prisoner of war” status to non-state combatants such as terrorists when they are caught should at least strike this writer as problematic. Prisoners from which state? Under what treaty with that state (if the hypothetical state even existed—which it doesn’t so already the points are moot). Nevertheless, the litany-review continues:
“Because they were neither formally charged with any crime, nor afforded prisoner-of-war status according to the Geneva Convention, the men at Guantanamo came to be labelled “unlawful combatants” or “detainees”, who have no legal protection within US or Cuban frameworks. In many ways, each of these artworks is evidence of an attempt to counter the US’ elaborate methodologies of removing these men’s subjectivity.
Creating these artworks is a profound act of non-erasure – illustrating will, longing, a desire to communicate both beauty and suffering, and to project longing onto a surface – to materialize their fantastical hopes where they, and others, can see them.”
We are informed about thematic content:
“Many detainee-artists depict the sea or other bodies of water, and seafaring vessels, both great and small. Ghaleb al-Bihani’s “Untitled (Red and Purple Boats)” shows two simple wooden boats listing in the water, while an agile sailboat speeds past in the distance.”
The artworks are complex to the reviewer. We are asked to consider that:
“There are artworks that fall completely out of any of these easy attempts to categorise. Muhammad Ansi’s “Untitled (Alan Kurdi)” is clearly a painful contemplation of the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned, almost within reach of the Greek island of Kos, in September 2015. The boy’s back is turned to us, the viewers, as it was in news photographs. The brilliant red of his shirt stands stark against the blue half-saucers of sea waves, which, through Ansi’s paint-strokes, also become as light as the sky – the heaven to which this child’s soul departed.”
Ms Jayawardane recounts an incident that has been debunked as flatly not having taken place and unfolded in the way that is described by her in the present article as well as by others who have chosen to ignore facts in continuing to press forward with lies. She then uses it to establish a symbology of “American might” that was lost on 9-11; the Twin Towers, in Jayawanrdane’s analysis, are explained as “symbols that once stood testimony to American might.” (here I would like to not that at no point in her article does Ms Jayawardane mention the almost three thousand people from ninety different nations who were killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks):
Initially, parading these anonymous, hooded prisoners, and deliberately concealing their identities served a powerful empire’s need to reveal and revel in its material and symbolic devices of power.
As scholar Scott McClintock noted in a 2004 article, herein lie clues into the motive for kidnapping, imprisoning, and torturing people that the US government knows are not guilty of terrorist activity: the “enemy combatants” in the gulag of Guantanamo Bay replaced the void in power created by the “disappeared” Twin Towers – those symbols that once stood testimony to American might.”
We are told that an exercise of state power (which is explained as
“Much like Alwi’s ship with its billowing sails, each of these works shows that each man who still creates has ambition and focus, and makes a much-longed-for goal come to fruition. When the goal of the state power that has incarcerated these detainees has been concentrated on removing their subjectivity and individuality, reducing them to a number (even the guards at the prison call the prisoners by their number), this is a remarkable feat.
Art, we are told, “triggers” things like “complex conversations” and can “reveal” that which we “would rather not know about.” It can also, Ms Jayawardane tells us, present us with “unintended material evidence” of the United States’ “exercises of power”:
“We know that art can trigger far more complex conversations. It can reveal that which we would rather not know about, it can contradict the powerful who attempt to control what comes into our visible spaces, and it can move us out of our social and political inertia, and challenge us to take action. According to Thompson, audiences who have come to see the works are engaging with these works politically, as unintended material evidence (or debris) of their country’s exercises of power.”
For those reasons, Thompson thought it important to show these works in an area with heavy foot-traffic, where John Jay’s students, staff, and faculty will see the works. If one comes to see these works with the view that art is meant for enjoyment or pleasure alone, then they will probably have a harsh view of the absurdity of displaying tortured, indefinitely “detained” men’s artwork in New York City. Thompson emphasized, however, that she “worked hard to make sure that this exhibit…display[ed] the art in a manner desired by the artists themselves, which of course includes reminding viewers of what they have/are suffering’.”
“Yet – despite these efforts by many US citizens, including the detainees’ pro-bono lawyers who worked, in the years after 9/11, to educate their fellow citizens, and to resist, challenge, and change policies that came to be as a result of the “war on terror” – state propaganda remains powerful.”
The public at large is “baffled” and at a loss on how to grapple with the world (the readers are informed of these facts about ourselves). For this, the author has a remedy which places us at a convenient alignment with Ms. Jayawardane’s students (she explains this to us). That is good because she can now tell us what we “do not know”:
“The conversations I overheard while visiting the gallery where detainee artwork is displayed told me that the greater US public has been equally baffled by these intricacies and deceptions. Some know that the Obama administration promised to close Guantanamo down forever, and did not realize that it was still in operation.
They do not know that as President Barack Obama’s second term came to a close, of the over 700 men who were once held there, 41 detainees – mostly from Yemen – remain. They also did not realize that only one of the men has been charged with a crime, but that, because of “instability” in the remaining men’s home countries, it was deemed too dangerous to release them back into spaces where they may re-join factions fighting against US interests.”
The complications of contemplating and engaging with artworks by detainee-artists involve feelings of being defeated and hopeless, and wanting, even then, to find ways to engage and challenge the roaring beast of empire, and the desire to find ways to bear witness without exploiting the detainees’ very real pain and torture.”
The nation that suffered an unprovoked and barbaric attack on innocents is deemed to be the sinister agent:
Of all the unbearable absurdities in this exercise of US power, the one that my students, the audiences at this exhibition, as well as detainees at Guantanamo themselves find to be the most unbelievable is this: that citizens of the same nation that kidnapped, forcibly transported men in chains to a burning island and continued to torture them for over a decade are also trying to defend and free them. This gives us hope that the labour towards freedom is not pointless, and that we, too, cannot afford not to engage in this work.”
Al Jazeera was far from alone which now prompts me to demonstrate a briefer survey of other press.
The Guardian was careful to represent the intentions of the detainees; even giving one of them a poetic last word:
“According to the exhibition catalogue: “Ameziane told his lawyers that at his ‘worst moment’ he felt as though he were ‘a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination …’”
Ameziane also told his lawyers that before the art classes began at the camp, detainees were not even allowed to draw doodles in letters to their families or loved ones. If they did, camp authorities would black them out.
While the rules at Guantánamo continue to change, sometimes detainees considered “compliant” are allowed to work on their art projects in their cells.
Alwi, a Yemeni national who is still detained in the prison, said he starts working on his pieces “a little before dawn” and continues for seven or eight hours.
“When I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself,” he told his lawyer Beth Jacob.
“Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art.”
The New Yorker engaged in what seemed to be earnest analysis on the surface:
“The sea can also mean danger, loss, and separation, or a difficult, uncertain journey, and not all the work in the show is so sanguine. Ansi’s pieces—sixteen, the most of anyone—include a painting of the famous photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who drowned off the coast of Turkey during his family’s attempt to flee the war, as well as one of the Titanic, still intact and sailing toward its doom, which puzzled me until I learned that Ansi had been shown the James Cameron movie by a female interrogator who was trying to create a rapport with him. (The catalogue notes that he “was entranced by the film, but recognized the attempted manipulation of being shown sexual scenes while sitting beside a woman.”) Erin Thompson, an assistant professor at John Jay and one of the show’s curators, told me that the detainees have to be careful not to show anger in their art lest they compromise their chance for release, though some of the work does toe the line. In one of Ansi’s paintings, a giant, kohl-rimmed eye—his mother’s, he told his lawyer—weeps in the sky, while in another, the Statue of Liberty, painted black, turns her ashen back to the viewer. As in a seascape that shows shark fins slicing through the water, painted by Khalid Qasim, who is still in detention and on a grueling hunger strike, the symbolism speaks for itself.”
“The work in the show came to Thompson through the detainees’ lawyers, who have held onto them for safekeeping as their clients waited for release. It is fortunate that they did. A few weeks ago, the government, apparently reminded of the existence of the detainees’ art by press coverage of the show, declared it government property and therefore subject to destruction, a policy that Thompson, in a Times Op-Ed, denounced as petty and cruel.
“I didn’t want to manipulate their work, so I kept asking them through their lawyers, ‘What do you want from displaying your art?’ ” she told me. “And they all kept telling me, ‘We want people to look at our art and recognize that we’re human beings.’ ” It is confounding to try to fathom the lives that these detainees have had, the conditions that they have endured in our name while hidden from our view. Is that fathoming more or less difficult while looking at the pictures that they have made of the ocean, of buildings, of trees and flowers and the moon, ordinary subjects rendered extraordinary by the circumstance of their creation that have, against the odds, washed up on the shore of our city like messages in a bottle? I don’t know, but the sense that I had, at “Ode to the Sea,” was of real contact being made. Art is created for every reason under the sun, but surely the most basic, the most elemental reason of all, is to mark the fact of one’s own existence in the world, to send a sign of it out like a flare so that others might see.”
Positive comparisons are drawn; and favorites are even named:
“My favorite pieces in “Ode to the Sea” are not paintings but sculptures: model ships made from scavenged materials—trash, essentially—by Moath al-Alwi, who is still in detention. (It seems that his latest project, still in progress, has been confiscated as a result of the government’s new policy.) They are fanciful treasures of ingenuity and imagination, the work of countless careful hours. Al-Alwi made his ships’ sails from old T-shirts and their wheels from bottle caps; their rigging comes from the nets that line Guantánamo-issued prayer caps. On the basis of a picture, he constructed a Venetian gondola with painted sponges for seats and lanterns whose glass is the plastic cover of a shaving razor. There is something magical about these ships, built in captivity, which have now improbably come to dock on Tenth Avenue. Their prows are all graced with cardboard eagles’ wings, like the ones on Hermes’ sandals, speeding them ahead on their unfinished journeys.”
PRI distinguished its own coverage of the exhibit by mentioning that Ammar al-Baluchi does not simply have charges pending against him but is actually in the middle of a military trial:
“The most notorious among the artists is Ammar al-Baluchi, currently on trial in a military commission for his alleged role in supporting the 9/11 plot and hijackers. For three years he was held in a CIA ‘black site,’ where he was tortured. His one piece of art in the exhibit, “Vertigo,” reflects that torture.”
CBS is the only media outlet that I could find to meet what we might consider to be two basic criteria when covering such an unusual event. CBS is the media outlet that was both included by the curators on their website of accomplishments and, at the same time, mentioned the victims who perished on 9/11. While others failed to include a word of victim testimony, CBS had this:
“Al and Maureen Santora lost their son, Christopher, a firefighter, in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. They believe this art has no place being shown here.”
“‘To have a public university sponsor this, I think is absolutely outrageous and reprehensible,’” said Maureen. “‘We are now giving them a forum which they should not have. They should have no voice, because they snuffed out the voices of almost 3,000 people on September 11.’”
“Thompson said, to her, it was the most important work in the show. ‘It’s the most-clear link we have to the mind of someone capable of terrorism,’ she said. To judge by the lingering visitors, it’s also one of the most popular artworks. It’s like trying to describe something that no one can understand, especially not in my world,’ said one student, Xander.”
We, as viewers, are informed that we are in the presence “of the mind of someone capable of terrorism” Destruction isn’t impressive to most people who have ever made anything.
With that in mind, take the following exchange that aired on National Public Radio:
“PAIGE LAINO: It looks fun on the surface, but there’s a lot of, like, very tortured pencil marks. And it’s – I mean, it is a black hole. It’s a fun-colored black hole.
“KARR: The artist is Ammar al-Bluchi, the only so-called high-value detainee in the show. He distributed money that the al-Qaida conspirators used to carry out the 9/11 attacks. A military commission is set to try him on charges that carry the death penalty. Attorney Alka Pradhan represents al-Bluchi and loaned the piece for display in the show. Pradhan says her client painted it in an effort to describe what she calls the lingering effects of torture after he was captured
“KARR: Thompson is a professor of art crime who studies the ways terrorist groups loot and destroy art. She discovered that other lawyers also had collections of art from Guantanamo. Attorney Alka Pradhan has represented several detainees over the years.”
ALKA PRADHAN: Every single one of them had artwork that was worthy of display.”
Contrast that with how Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine) writes about Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting Salvador Mundi. Saltz is an art critic for New York Magazine and engages with this painting despite the fact that he is “no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters”:
“I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters. But I’ve looked at art for almost 50 years and one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo. The painting is absolutely dead. Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old. This explains why Christie’s pitches it with vague terms like “mysterious,” filled with “aura,” and something that “could go viral.” Go viral? As a poster, maybe. A two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.”
Mr. Saltz goes on to “rename” the painting “Salvador Turdi” (replacing the Latin word for “world” with the word “turd”). If the prospect of abusing the titans of artistic creation while extolling men who are suspected of crimes against humanity seems to fly in the face of the “profoundly human” urge that these writers purport to be celebrating then consider the following. Art is made by the likes of us human beings. The curators of Ode to the Sea as well as the press were happy to discard the voices of men and women who have been affected by 9/11. These victims (the actual victims) have seen intelligence reports on the men detained at Guantanamo Bay. The New York Times, which published Erin Thomspson’s op-ed as well as other adulatory essays, including an editorial (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/12/03/opinion/art-gitmo.html) on the exhibit also failed to mention the declassified documents on these individuals which they carry in their own dossier.
“A lot of guys who passed away during 9/11 went to John Jay College, including my brother. I can’t understand how this college in particular would allow such a thing. Where’s their decency? Where’s their dignity? They’re delivering the completely wrong message. It’s denying and softening what happened. What’s next, hanging up the art of John Wayne Gacy?”
— Michael Burke, of The Bronx, whose brother, FDNY Capt. Billy Burke, 46, died on 9/11
“It’s like a slap in the face, completely out of nowhere. Let them display that at Guantanamo, not here. It’s a terrible precedent to set.”
— Jim McCaffrey, of Yonkers, retired FDNY lieutenant whose brother-in-law, FDNY Battalion Chief Orio Palmer, 45, died on 9/11
“I feel completely betrayed. Someone’s job should be on the line for this. Using taxpayer money to hang the artwork of criminals in our college for criminal justice makes my blood boil. This is going way too far and is rubbing our noses in the loss we have to carry with us every day.”
— Rosaleen Tallon, of Yonkers, stay-at-home mother whose brother, firefighter Sean Tallon, 26, died on 9/11
“I think it’s sick and insulting. I was down in Guantanamo and saw these guys in court. [They] have no respect for anyone. They murdered our kids and families and don’t deserve their art shown anywhere. The families weren’t consulted about this at all. It’s like having Hitler do a drawing and hanging his work up. It’s a complete disgrace. [Mayor] de Blasio and [Gov.] Cuomo should be held accountable.”
— Jim Riches (right), of Brooklyn, retired FDNY deputy chief whose son, firefighter Jimmy Riches, 29, died on 9/11
The entire site and everything it contains reflects the snobbery of this peculiar cadre of people who are very pleased with themselves for having attained a level of filth that most of us would do anything to avoid. Here’s they boast about their press (they omit all the mentions that question their motives or give voice to the victim’s friends or family):
“The exhibit received widespread press coverage, including in the New York Times, New Yorker, Paris Review, CBS Sunday Morning, PBS NewsHour, Comedy Central, Deutsche Welle, La Repubblica, Miami Herald, Al Jazeera, NPR, PRI, BBC World Service, The Nation, and The Guardian.”
Erin Thomson herself sports an equally self-congratulating tone. “As America’s only full-time professor of art crime,” she proclaims on her website, “I study the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art.”
In his Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats’s narrator describes the poetic object that he is admiring as a “friend” to humanity. To serious artists, however, “friends” can feel more like family since they are part of our DNA in how we practice our art.
It is the influence of the work of true artists, those who are possessed of creation and creative spirit (the very opposite of destruction) that allow us to see and conceptualize our own work if we are to continue the creative enterprise. It is their trace as much as our own that we reinvent and leave behind in the art that we make.
Mention of the real art that was lost on September 11th 2001 is nowhere to be found in the copious press exposure that the Ode to the Sea exhibit promotes online. Since Erin Thompson, America’s self-appointed “only full-time professor” who studies the “damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art”, doesn’t care to prioritize it (or doesn’t find art cool), allow me.
Here is some of the art that I cherished along with the rest of humanity. These were taken away from us all on 9/11. We won’t see this in Ms. Thompson’s exhibits not will we see these things mentioned in the press. The curators of this “art” exhibition as well as their pushers in the press admire the works of the lowliest terrorists over our masters. Criminality, it seems, is one thing that they are capable of aspiring to. They might even think it’s cool.
Their disregard for human beings is linked to their ignorance of humanity as embodied in our fine arts. But that doesn’t change the fact that these works existed and I’m here to tell you about it. This is because we are not compelled to consent to living in the filth with the consumers of dirt.
These are some of my “friends” that generations of human beings will never see because of the barbarism of animals. They took lifetimes to create and they bore the soul of all humanity. They were taken for us in one morning of destruction. These things, and not the “work” of barbaric terrorists, are what should impress us.
Here is Ideogram, a 1967 stainless steel sculpture by James Rosati
Another friend that was lost to the ages was the commanding and mesmerizingly profound granite sculpture by Japanese artist Masayuki Nagare.
The World Trade Center Tapestry a 20′ x 35′ tapestry by the beautiful-eyed and nobly minded Joan Miró.
After the terrorists“celebrated” their first destructive attempt to wreak havoc at the World Trade Center, (the 1993 bombings) the irrepressible spirit of Elyn Zimmerman responded to the destruction and inhumanity with a memorial fountain for the victims. It no longer exists in the world of things:
Alexander Calder wrought World Trade Center Stabile, into being and offered it to humanity in 1971. Because of the arbitrary acts of barbarians on September 2001, we had managed to recover less than 30% of it by the end of that year:
It’s hard to believe that we will never see Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower ever again. It was made for the world; to exist in the world. Pictures are just not the same but pictures what we have; here is one:
Romare Bearden made a contrapuntal and reflective tapestry that was a friend to me in pensive times. He called it Recollection Pond:
Sky Gate, New York (1977–78) is a large wooden sculpture wrought of the supreme force of human genius and our love affair with the sky. The artist is the special Louise Nevelson.
Path Mural, by Germaine Keller disappeared on that September morning. It was a clear and radiant artwork from the hand of an artist who did nothing but light up the world with the force of her creativity.
Cynthia Mailman’s boldly gigantic mural called Commuter Landscape, captures the essence of what Ive called the “maniacal grid” of Manhattan ever since I first saw it.
Hunt Slonem’s Fan Dancing with the Birds, helped me to conceive of a story-telling device I would use in an opera to be completed nearly two decades after the work was destroyed.
I had the opportunity to gasp at the sheer beauty of The Entablature Series by Roy Lichtenstein never thinking for a moment that they would be lost in their youth and future generations would be deprived of the same unique joy that they brought to me.
The Sphere was created by Fritz Koenig to thrive for eternity. It was our sphere and somehow managed to hold the North and South Towers together through the radiant life infused into it by the sunlight as it rebounded against the bronze brilliance of the form. World Trade and world cooperation found something it w beacon in the world of this sphere. That was savaged by barbarism is no coincidence. Creation must be the most odious thing in the world to those who avidly worship death and destruction.
This sculpture was meant to thrive; instead it survived and exists today as a memorial. I elect to show you how it looked before the collapse. I don’t want our earthly sphere to become a memorial; it was never intended to be one:
When I was a child, I would walk past the Victoria and Albert Museum on London’s exhibition road on my way to language classes. I would always, ritualistically, walk up to the top floor and look at a sculpture called “The age of Bronze.” The work is one of Rodin’s finest. It speaks of an awakening of the human form. Over time, I became more and more aware of the bullet and bombing damage that still scar the outer walls of the museum; a memento from the savage Nazi Blitz of London. “At least,” I gratefully thought, “these sculptures were brought to London before Hitler reached Paris. There were 300 sculptures and drawings by Rodin that were melted into nothingness or incinerated by airline fuel and gravity. They were entombed in the Towers. I have no picture to show you. I only hope that future generations of artists will be able to see these works like Basho saw the legendary pine of Takekuma. It didn’t exist by the time he arrived to see the famous tree. “Eyes of other poets,” he said, “showed me where it was.”
These are works of art that existed. They are part of the DNA of our artistic creativity. Losing them was like losing a limb. I cannot let them go. These things need to be carried. I struggle to carry them so that they may live on through me in the hopes that I can transcribe something of their spirit. In some small way I am their vessel and they will live on so that the generations who have been forced to live without these masterpieces will at least be able to “see them” them through my artistic testimony.
4. Morbid Resemblances
On September 16th, 2001, Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German composer spoke to the press at the Hamburg Music Festival. While promoting his work, Stockhausen offered the Norddeutscher Rundfunk his convictions with regards to the terrorist attacks that had assaulted the United States five days earlier. The attacks were, Mr. Stockhausen told the world, “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”
He expounded on his premise:
“Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, “people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that.”
And finally, Stockhausen added a summation that fancied itself as representative of the practitioners of an entire art form. “By comparison,” he said, “we composers are nothing.”
Stockhausen’s words are an endorsement of destruction. Art involves construction. In this way, Stockhausen’s thoughts on 9/11 contravened the foundational essence of all art.
A few decades earlier the composer Igor Stravinsky spoke to students at Harvard in his 1939-40 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures titled, The Poetics of Music, which take the form of six lessons. By the time of the lectures, Stravinsky had been labeled a “revolutionary” following the riots that broke out at (and drowned out) the Paris premiere of his ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913. Though it was the notoriety of this “revolutionary” label (with it’s apparent allure of transgressive, disruption, “bad boy” attitude and edginess) that was part of what propelled him into a realm of international media visibility, Stravinsky rejected the label. He explained this to his students in the first lesson:
“The tone of a work like The Rite may have appeared arrogant, the language that it spoke may have seemed harsh in its newness, but that in no way implies that it is revolutionary in the most subversive sense of the word. If one only need break a habit to merit being labeled revolutionary, then every musician who has something to say and who in order to say it goes beyond the bounds of established convention would be known as revolutionary. Why burden the dictionary of the fine arts with this stertorous term, which designates in its most usual acceptation a state of turmoil and violence, when there are so many other words better adapted to designate originality? In truth, I should be hard pressed to cite for you a single fact in the history of art that might be qualified as revolutionary. Art is by essence constructive. Revolution implies a disruption of equilibrium. To speak of revolution is to speak of a temporary chaos. Now art is the contrary of chaos. It never gives itself up to chaos without immediately finding its living works, its very existence, threatened.”
Stravinsky is talking about the temporary chaos characteristic of revolutions here in explaining that this chaos threatens the existence of construction and thus the essence of artistic creation. He did not feel the need to explain that all-out destruction is a seal of death to art and all that it entails. Destruction negates all that is existentially vital to the constructive processes and objects that form the essential rubric of art. I suspect that Stravinsky did not feel the need to explain that art cannot coexist with the desecration of destruction.
The turmoil of destruction, especially when it is felt through the wanton mass-murder of innocent people as was the case on 9/11, is felt on all forms of human inquiry from the political and ethical to the moral, philosophical and scientific. First responders find themselves having to make ethical decisions weighing their survival in dangerous situations (and therefore their ability to save or assist more people). Judges have to consider questions about the legal implications of a response to the atrocity. Political figures have to answer to their constituencies and provide security and a means for the citizens affected directly as well as a nation and world rocked by the image of terror to move through the inferno. Scientists have to explain what went wrong and how two towers in New York had their steel bent to the point where the towers collapsed on themselves when faced with the temperature of an inferno triggered by well-fueled planes that were transformed into missiles.
In fact, scientists continued explaining the physics of how the destruction spread during the 9/11 attacks to those who would listen as a confused and hurt public begging for answers were manipulated by opportunistic conspiracy theorists looking to advance their narcissistic and/or opportunistic goals. In a March 2005 article for Scientific American Michael Shermer explained (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fahrenheit-2777/) the atmosphere clearly:
“Noted French left-wing activist Thierry Meyssan’s 9/11 conspiracy book, L’Effroyable Imposture, became a best-seller in 2002. But I never imagined such an “appalling deception” would ever find a voice in America. At a recent public lecture I was buttonholed by a Michael Moorewannabe filmmaker who breathlessly explained that 9/11 was orchestrated by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the Central Intelligence Agency as part of their plan for global domination and a New World Order. That goal was to be financed by G.O.D. (Gold, Oil, Drugs) and launched by a Pearl Harborlike attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, thereby providing the justification for war. The evidence was there in the details, he explained, handing me a faux dollar bill (with “9-11” replacing the “1,” a picture of Bush supplanting that of Washington) chockablock with Web sites.”
By the time that article appeared in March 2005, many publications and television shows had attempted to explain the science of that day were produced and quickly drowned out by the sheer volume (in both decibels and quantity) with which the most outrageous practitioners in the economy of attention advanced their wares. Scientific American cites over 250,000 websites. “Books” it goes on “also abound, including Inside Job, by Jim Marrs; The New Pearl Harbor, by David Ray Griffin; and 9/11: The Great Illusion, by George Humphrey. The single best debunking of this conspiratorial codswallop is in the March issue of Popular Mechanics, which provides an exhaustive point-by-point analysis of the most prevalent claims.”
The article goes on to address the confusion:
“…steel loses 50 percent of its strength at 1,200 degrees F; 90,000 liters of jet fuel ignited other combustible materials such as rugs, curtains, furniture and paper, which continued burning after the jet fuel was exhausted, raising temperatures above 1,400 degrees F and spreading the inferno throughout each building. Temperature differentials of hundreds of degrees across single steel horizontal trusses caused them to sag–straining and then breaking the angle clips that held the beams to the vertical columns. Once one truss failed, others followed. When one floor collapsed onto the next floor below, that floor subsequently gave way, creating a pancaking effect that triggered each 500,000-ton structure to crumble. Conspiricists argue that the buildings should have fallen over on their sides, but with 95 percent of each building consisting of air, they could only have collapsed straight down. Destruction mocks and negates the practice of creative labor as it condemns and carries out a death sentence on the results of human construction.”
Mr. Schermer, who is a historian of science and has studied the spread of irrationalities explains the root of conspiracy in the “mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking (as well as creationism, Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics). All the ‘evidence’ for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy. Such notions are easily refuted by noting that scientific theories are not built on single facts alone but on a convergence of evidence assembled from multiple lines of inquiry.”
The end of the Mr Schermer’s arcticle reveals that there are people who are far from simply lacking the moral center and conscience that would have them atone for preying on vulnerable people who are desperate for answers. They believe in themselves so much that they are thoroughly convinced that they are engaged in compassionate deeds that enhance the “common good.” Schermer recounts an encounter with his aforementioned film-maker:
“All the 9/11 conspiracy claims are this easily refuted. On the Pentagon “missile strike,” for example, I queried the would-be filmmaker about what happened to Flight 77, which disappeared at the same time. “The plane was destroyed, and the passengers were murdered by Bush operatives,” he solemnly revealed. “Do you mean to tell me that not one of the thousands of conspirators needed to pull all this off,” I retorted, “is a whistle-blower who would go on TV or write a tell-all book?” My rejoinder was met with the same grim response I get from UFOlogists when I ask them for concrete evidence: Men in Black silence witnesses, and dead men tell no tales.”
Nobody who was forced to ask questions of life and death on September 11th 2001 should ever have had to ask those questions to begin with. They were forced upon the world by terrorists. The fact that the confusion of a bewildered and hurt public was seen as an opening to engage in profiteering and the self validation of ego by individuals who saw the attacks as an opportunity to become “leaders” is beyond reprehensible. Those individuals are “right” and see themselves as good and smart men and women who can now explain things to people. They feel a self-aggrandizing thrill in “teaching” people and they do so even at the expense of the world.
Of all the questions that nobody should be forced have asked on that day, the most immediately apparent one is the question of a man or woman trapped in one of the window panels of the burning tower and faced with the sight of their coworkers in the 1200 Fahrenheit inferno inside the tower as they melted into a non-human form before their very eyes: “should I jump?”
Chris Pandolofo, the son of a man who watched the incident unfold, recounted it in 2017:
As my dad and the other bystanders watched the towers burn, to their horror, they began to notice “large objects” falling from the buildings. There were people leaping from the towers, falling to their deaths, to escape the incinerating heat of the flames. You can find videos on YouTube, if you have the stomach for it.
“I saw two people hold hands and jump together. That made me sick,” my dad remembered.
Many asked the question, “should I jump?” 200 people jumped that day.
The turmoil of destruction acted out through mass-murder is felt on all forms of human inquiry but no form of inquiry was debased and held to death as much as that of the artist on 9/11. Murderers weaponized the vehicles designed and formed by human beings for the purpose of flight as missiles. Leonardo da Vinci’s spirit was desecrated as was the spirit of every artist. The forms of the buildings were destroyed, too and human stories were ended in the most arbitrary way.
The act of murder required nothing; certainly no courage, daring or skill. It required no disciple or “rehearsal” as Stockhausen put it beyond the plan for violence and the execution of violence (something that even the roughest brutes of pre-history could manage). Despite the attempt to assign “world-views” to the murderers, the act remains an arbitrary and thoughtless transgression against life that no self-sustaining human society has ever tolerated without devolving into barbarism.
I do not say all this to condemn simply Stockhausen’s statement. It has been condemned and the the reader should understand that my desire to distance myself from his statement as a matter of staying away from destructive persons such as him is a matter of self-preservation as well as an observation of fundamental decency and basic humanity. I raise his commentary in order to urge the reader to consider the importance of the following thoughts (from Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music) in which he spoke about revolution.
“There are clever people,” he explained, “who bring about revolutions with malice aforethought . . . It is always necessary to guard against being misrepresented by those who impute to you an intention not your own.”
Mr Stockhausen’s statement was condemned for being gruesome. That is obvious but and, in itself, presents no reason for me to bring it up. But his statement is not only gruesome. It reveals a mortal flaw in his thinking that needs to be elucidated. The thinking of an artist is distinguished from that of most philosophers in that it cannot, by definition, comprise exclusively of abstract thought. The artist’s task is the task of one who orders, gives life and creates. The thoughts of any artist must be manifested and communicated through the creation of a work of art.
The destructive act is a devastating one which threatens the form and shape that the artist must give to his or her work in order to bring it into the world. Confounding the basic definition of art and the role it plays is dangerous. Confounding the intent of art with and the quality of daring with that of destruction and violence is also dangerous. It is through these confusions that we unwittingly admit those who would sow confusion and teach violence into our midst.
“The quality of being revolutionary” says Stravinsky, “is generally attributed to artists in our day with a laudatory intent, undoubtedly because we are living in a period when revolution enjoys a kind of prestige among yesterday’s elite. Let us understand each other: I am the first to recognize that daring is the motive force of the finest and greatest acts; which is all the more reason for not putting it unthinkingly at the service of disorder and base cravings in a desire to cause sensation at any price.”
Stravinsky goes on to admonish his students. “I approve of daring,” he says. “I set no limits to it. But likewise there are no limits to the mischief wrought by arbitrary acts.”
On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a Stanford University professor named Terry Castle reverted to Stockhausen’s remarks in an essay which she published in New York Magazine. The essay begins like this:
“The urge to grandstand is human: Sometimes you feel you just have to wreck people’s self-serving illusions. Have a knockdown, drag-out. Nuke ’em. All in a good cause, you think: Moral rectitude—the truth—requires rhetorical violence. I know because I’ve done my share. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, apocalyptic grandstanding was basically all I did. Despite being until then your standard-issue California-dwelling, left-leaning feminist academic (sort of)—an English professor—I suddenly found myself delivering bellicose right-wing tirades. Monster-blasts of aggression, vengefulness, and rage. Big mean tough talk of exactly the sort I’d previously despised and associated with the most reactionary (and stupid) politicians and talk-show hosts.”
The stakes were pitifully low: Most of this fulminating went on in private. Or close enough to it. I was 3,000 miles away when the attacks occurred—indeed, comfortably ensconced at home in sunny, late-summer San Francisco. But when I had to give a lecture at a British university not long after, my mental and emotional chaos did not deter me from making a host of fairly wild impromptu remarks about them, including the statement—delivered with rictus-face and mad gleam—that had I somehow been given an opportunity in advance of the attacks to obliterate Mohamed Atta and his wretched associates, I would have happily done so. I want to kill them! Fucking thugs. The poor students looked frightened and stupefied.
Similar feelings burst forth when an editor in London at a left-wing literary magazine for which I sometimes wrote—we were having lunch—asked why Americans were so stunned by 9/11. Couldn’t any thinking person see that foolish U.S. policies in the Middle East had helped precipitate the attack? I started fuming incoherently about the Houses of Parliament being blown up—thousands of people killed, etc.—while he looked on, baffled. I squeaked on undaunted: If the U.S. hadn’t won the Cold War, London and Paris would now look like Kiev and Smolensk! You guys owe it to us! Hardly the charming lunch guest. In a matter of days, I’d morphed into a sort of cockeyed Otto von Bismarck crossed with the Ancient Mariner: a weird, caved-in convert to some of the very oldest of the old ideas—all the sad, abject, bloodshot human theorems. An eye for an eye and—you know the rest.
But everybody was saying crazy things then. Witness the venerable German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose shocking remarks at a press conference at a music festival in Hamburg six days after the attacks made headlines. The events of 9/11, he’d enthused, were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” Things had gone from bad to worse to incendiary when, like Batman’s Joker, he warmed to his theme: “Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying; just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing.”
There is a more conciliatory tone when it comes to Stockhausen himself:
“Stockhausen’s comments produced immediate repugnance worldwide. “To the victims of terrorism,” wrote a commentator for the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, the composer’s “mental descent into hell … must seem like hideous mockery.” Although Stockhausen subsequently claimed he had been misunderstood, he became a pariah for a while in Europe and North America. His concerts at the music festival were canceled; his daughter, a pianist, said she would no longer perform using the Stockhausen name. When he died, in 2007, many obituarists mentioned the 9/11 scandal; indeed, for some, it overshadowed his extraordinary musical career.”
Here, for the reader’s reference is a glimpse into Stockhausen’s ideas about himself. From this the reader should surmise that he proudly claims his place among the prophets of doom.
“It’s hard to know quite how to relate to a composer who tells us that his music isn’t really music at all: it’s a message of enlightenment to mankind from his celestial ancestors, who live somewhere near the star Sirius. But that is precisely what the once-great modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen believes.”
We will come back to the problematic words in this paragraph when we take a closer look at “modernism” in the following lesson. For the time being, it is enough to clarify that the goal of a terrorist is to terrorize. The whole civilized world can be counted to be among the victims of terrorism. The victims of murder are the victims of murder (those who were killed and those directly affected). The victims of terrorism are anybody who watched the attacks and found them to be terrible in their spectacle of death.
Though a microblip on the scale of things, Stockhausen’s remarks have stayed with me, no doubt because—even after ten years and the inevitable flattening out of one’s 9/11 memories—I can’t decide what I think about them. At the time his comments struck me as loony and repellent, and I was inclined to dismiss them—yes—as grandstanding. Intellectual grandstanding, that is—of a sort I’d seen exhibited by fellow humanities professors at rich universities across the U.S., who despite tenure and plush middle-class lives thought of themselves as Marxists or somehow on the academic left. September 11 had provided them yet another opportunity to reiterate the logic of the dialectic—how you couldn’t really blame the jihadists, because, as Gramsci said … , etc. Happily, few regular people paid any notice or were even aware of these momentous “interventions” emanating from the ivory tower.
But that was how it was after 9/11: Everyone (again, I include myself) wanted to wound everyone else, with words if not weapons. We were all impossibly confused and frightened—like terrified children, really—and otherwise sensible adults reverted to whatever ego defenses they had evolved over a lifetime to ward off feelings of humiliation, panic, and despair. Stockhausen, the Marxists, I myself, we all were doing it. The posturing. Pretending to be intellectual and above it all. Together we’d been dealt an unthinkable blow: Let the railing begin.
Over the decade, though, I’ve come to have second thoughts—heaps, actually, about lots of things—and some about the Stockhausen scandal. Yes, his remarks were stupendously ill-judged. Yet even at the time—with chaos impinging everywhere—I remember vaguely feeling there was something there, some small mote in what he’d said, that might bear thinking about later. Was it that flabbergasting phrase, “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”? One hadn’t time to ruminate, but one put his comments away nonetheless in some mental drawer marked Needing Further Consideration.
Fast-forward to new, semi-normal life. At Stanford, I often teach a course on Gothic fiction. We read all the early English novels of terror and the supernatural—The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Frankenstein—and I lecture on their relation to what scholars call the “cult of the Sublime.” In eighteenth-century aesthetics, the Sublime was anything that by its size, strength, or the danger it posed to human life produced instinctive terror and awe. Certain natural objects, philosophers like Kant maintained, were necessarily sublime: erupting volcanoes, tempests, huge waterfalls, ferocious beasts, racing floods, swiftly enveloping darkness, and so on. But man-made phenomena could also be sublime: ancient ruins, grim fortresses, the interiors of great cathedrals, colossal towers, pitch-black dungeons, and the like.
Ms Castle speaks of ‘Intoxicating delight’:
The theory held that when sublime objects were contemplated from a position of safety—when, say, one saw a volcanic eruption from a great distance, or even just read a description of one—the results could be thrilling and pleasurable. Unmediated sublimity terrorized, yes, but representations of sublimity produced excitement, a monster-rush of euphoria. The point was not lost on eighteenth-century Gothic novelists; like disaster filmmakers today, they realized that, skillfully packaged, things otherwise dread-inspiring could be a source of perverse yet intoxicating delight.
And finally a glimpse at her teaching methods:
I’d often used paintings to illustrate the cult of the Sublime: Wright of Derby’s Vesuvius in Eruption; George Stubbs’s Horse Attacked by a Lion; melodramatic Victorian depictions of the destruction of Pompeii and similar calamities. Needless to say, one felt safely distant from the scenes represented; works like the nineteenth-century painter John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath and Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: Destruction verge, to modern eyes, on the ludicrous—pure Cecil B. DeMille camp.
In 2003, I acquired Here Is New York—a now-celebrated assemblage of photographs taken by New Yorkers during and after 9/11. The photos were riveting—couldn’t be otherwise—but I was frankly dumbstruck by what I could only call, uneasily, their sublimity. Most disturbing were those photos taken at night—searing long shots of the skyline in flames. But uncanny resemblances were everywhere: collapsing buildings, clouds of black smoke, victims fleeing in panic—all the lurid microdrama of cataclysm and death. I was appalled. Worse yet, I can’t teach my Gothic class now without showing them the WTC photos and their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century look-alikes.
What to do with such morbid resemblances? Was Stockhausen right? That there’s something artlike or “aesthetic” about 9/11? When I’ve broached the questions in class, the students seem befuddled, say nothing. But I too feel fairly aphasic—intellectually confounded. True, since 9/11, various writers have addressed Stockhausen’s claim with historical insight and tact. At Stockhausen’s death, his former composition student Robin Maconie wrote a passionate defense of his mentor in which he observed that Stockhausen’s remarks deserved to be understood “from the perspective of a European history and philosophy of suffering as a statement of resistance to the logic of war in the spirit of surrealist art.” Likewise, in Crimes of Art and Terror, a study of violence in modern art, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe have analyzed how difficult it is to separate Stockhausen’s provocations from similar challenges laid down by avant-garde artists since the nineteenth century.
Ms. Castle now transitions the reader to an imaginary conversation between “Stockhausen” and herself. This technique allows the writer to say things that are reserved for fiction writers to say and yet also present them as her subjective thoughts on an issue at hand. These “conversations” are tricky terrain because only one of the “characters” in the conversation is really that person (in this case, that would be Ms. Castle). “Stockhausen” is, in this context, fictional. Moreover, writers whom I have read and who have utilized this technique have made it clear that the text which is being read is imaginary and not a “real” conversation. This is true of the following example of a “conversation” between Leonard Bernstein and “George Washington” which is titled The Muzak Muse. Bernstein begins his dialogue with the following introduction before commencing the conversation proper :
“The scene is a luxurious jet plane, soon to be obsolete, hissing westward after the sun as if to overtake it and prevent the advent of night. The seat next to mine is vacant, and I have installed in it, as I often do on long journeys (and have since childhood), the disembodied person of George Washington, my faithful traveling companion, to whom I have long been in the habit of explaining the wonders of jets, automobiles, electric lights, billboards, drive-ins, and all the other wonders that have cropped up in the hundred and sixty years since he last laid eyes on this land. It is an exciting game, because he is always so excited and wide-eyed at each new miracle. He also serves a fine purpose, which is that of an ideal interviewer, a provoker of thoughts. In this capacity he is flawless, for he always asks the right question (as if he knew precisely what I wanted to say), and never makes extended speeches of his own.
G.W. is basking in the hushed wonder of Muzak, which is brainwashing the plane; I am trying hard to escape from it into any reading matter at hand.”
Bernstein cleverly explains the element which makes this technique illuminating In describing George Washington as a conversation partner he tells us that “It is an exciting game, because he is always so excited and wide-eyed at each new miracle. He also serves a fine purpose, which is that of an ideal interviewer, a provoker of thoughts. In this capacity he is flawless, for he always asks the right question (as if he knew precisely what I wanted to say), and never makes extended speeches of his own.”
In other words, one can create a “conversation partner” expressly to illustrate one’s point and the conversation partner in question will always be made to be interested in the topic at hand as well as uncynical. This is very helpful when employed to the end of making a point which is coherent and defined.
Even before his introductory note, Bernstein presents the conversation as imaginary on the cover:
Bernstein uses the artistic device in question poetically and constructively. His intention, which he states, is for the reader to gain an insight into a topic. This insight does indeed come and is attained by the conclusion of the dialogue by virtue of the fact that we are able to “work out” the question at hand in tandem with Bernstein. We “talk-it-through” as it were.
Both characters in the dialogue are, of course, Leonard Bernstein. Here is the “cast list,” as it were:
- Leonard Bernstein (as Leonard Bernstein in this imaginary dialogue)
- Leonard Bernstein as “George Washington.”
Ms Castle’s use of this technique is anti-poetic and confounding. The very presence of a fictional dialogue in the context of a journalistic opinion-essay is confounded. Castle does not inform us of this transition from the use of words as journalism to the use of words as fiction. The truth in both cases is confounded. Neither does Castle inform us of the imaginary nature of the dialogue at hand. Though the reader surmises that we have transitioned from a journal (“A diary; an account kept of daily transactions”) to fiction (a “thing feigned or invented”), the assumption is that Ms Castle is composing a journalistic essay and is using the explicitly invented material which transcends the daily record to explicate something about the daily record which she could not otherwise do in pure journalistic prose.
The contradictions can be traced throughout Ms. Castle’s writing. Studying her language will reveal self-conflicts in her thoughts that present themselves as elements in her language and can be observed in the macroscopic well as the minute; from the paragraphs, full sentences and the “whole” essay right down to each individual syllable. This makes a complete unfolding of essays like the present one as well as others which we have examined, lengthy and time-consuming if not impossible. One will always find another lie or contradiction.
Having said this, I would like to present a final example of contradiction which in order to illustrate just how rooted in the mind Castle’s lack of definition really is. Following the model which we have just applied to Bernstein here is the dramatic personae which Castle is about to represent in her script:
- 1.Terry Castle (as Terry Castle in this imaginary dialogue).
- 2.Terry Castle as “Karlheinz Stockhausen.
This is “Terry Castle speaking to herself in an imagined dialogue that is part of a journalistic essay as published in New York Magazine.”
A dialogue is defined as a “conference; a conversation between two or more, either real or feigned. The definitions of conversation are 1. “familiar discourse, chat, easy talk” 2. “ a particular act of discoursing upon any subject” 3.“commerce; intercourse” and finally 4. “behavior; Manner of acting in common life.”
Castle presents her dialogue as an “endless mental debates” which she “holds— with Stockhausen and” herself.
“But despite such commentaries I still find myself confused. The fundamental question—what is a work of art?—remains just as muddled as it always was, if not more so. Thus the endless mental debates I hold—with Stockhausen and myself”
As can be expected, there are many problems with this paragraph. Sticking to the point at hand, though, here is the definition of the word “debate”:
1. A personal dispute; a controversy.
2. A quarrel; a contest.
To Debate, v.a.
1. To controvert; to dispute; to contest.
To Debate, v.n.
1. To deliberate.
2. To dispute.
Even Ms. Castle’s internal debates are self-contradictory. This is a debate but one that is, as Ms. Castle herself defines, a dispute between Ms. Castle and herself. Even when Ms Castle is playa “quarrel or a contest,” a “controversy” and a “dispute.” If the artist reveals something about himself as the creator of a given work then this revelation is more easily appreciated in the objective rather than speculative. Ms Castle opted for an artistic approach of explication by using the form of an imaginary dialogue. She failed to explain anything as she readily admits in her un-conclusive conclusion:
“And so on—I fear ad infinitum.”
It takes a skilled artist and a clear intent to create art which can demonstrate that which is “hidden in plain sight. But Art is easily imbued with unintended conveyances. It also takes work, something which Ms. Castle is unwilling to endeavor as will be demonstrated by the fact that, at the end of this section, my work of bringing the confusions contained in one 61-word paragraph of her text into definition takes over three thousand words of explication. The good news is that the reader, having witnessed the process of undoing her self-dispute, will be able to apply the same process to countless cases of writers and speakers that are just like Ms. Castle since the quantity and robustness of their lies are dazzling but their inventiveness is quite limited.
Ms. Castle tells us, intentionally or unintentionally that she cannot even talk to herself without disagreeing with herself. This might explain the “vengefulness and rage” which Ms. Castle expresses not as emanating from her but as things which she “found herself” delivering and which she further deflects by characterizing them as “right-wing”:
“Despite being until then your standard-issue California-dwelling, left-leaning feminist academic (sort of)—an English professor—I suddenly found myself delivering bellicose right-wing tirades. Monster-blasts of aggression, vengefulness, and rage. Big mean tough talk of exactly the sort I’d previously despised and associated with the most reactionary (and stupid) politicians and talk-show hosts.”
“But despite such commentaries” says Ms. Castle, “I still find myself confused. The fundamental question—what is a work of art?—remains just as muddled as it always was, if not more so.”
This confusion is easily overcome but it requires work rather than language which denotes anger, condescension and intellectual sneer. At the outset, she tells the reader that “The urge to grandstand is human.” This echoes Bhattacharjee’s justification of lies (“to lie is human”). Both individuals write as though they have no recourse to control over their actions, behavior or intellectual development.
“Thus the endless mental debates I hold—with Stockhausen and myself” writes Ms. Castle. And with that, we near the end of our engagement with Ms. Castle. For this, I’ve constructed this as a “anti-dispute” which I would like to title “Get Real.” In it, I will bring Ms. Castle’s mistakes which she makes about, and leashes upon, art into definition. This is not an imaginary dialogue between me and Ms Castle. That would be impossible as she has told us already that the urge to kill this wound is not going to be accomplished through what she considers to be human means “the urge to grandstand.” This undoing of Ms. Castle’s ill-defined foray into fiction is for the benefit of the present reader. For the sake of clarity, which is much needed here, I have included words which belong to Ms. Castle in bold while labeling my own words clearly with my last name. This anti-dispute is not a “dialogue.” All my words are reflections of my own thoughts. Ms. Castle’s words also speak for themselves.
Before launching into an anti-dispute proper, I would like to recall one of Ms. Castle’s early paragraphs:
“The stakes were pitifully low: Most of this fulminating went on in private. Or close enough to it. I was 3,000 miles away when the attacks occurred—indeed, comfortably ensconced at home in sunny, late-summer San Francisco. But when I had to give a lecture at a British university not long after, my mental and emotional chaos did not deter me from making a host of fairly wild impromptu remarks about them, including the statement—delivered with rictus-face and mad gleam—that had I somehow been given an opportunity in advance of the attacks to obliterate Mohamed Atta and his wretched associates, I would have happily done so. I want to kill them! Fucking thugs. The poor students looked frightened and stupefied.”
I would like to dedicate this anti-dispute to those poor students. Let us begin.
Q: So wasn’t the composer’s error a category mistake—the confusing of a real event with something artificial or illusory? A mix-up of Life and Art?
A: Maybe. But given that most people know the event only through representations—we weren’t there, after all—isn’t one’s sense of the “real” event itself illusory? How do you think those paranoid conspiracy theories about 9/11 being faked got started?
Q: Okay, but couldn’t we view some of the representations as works of art? Indeed, aren’t some 9/11 photos “sublime”—if not beautiful?
A: But the subject matter is abhorrent! What sort of moral idiot discusses beauty and sublimity when images document an event in which thousands perished in horrific fashion?
Q: But painters and writers (and photographers and filmmakers) have often represented events resulting in a huge loss of life! Witness the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic … What about Picasso’s Guernica?
A: But these representations involve things now distant from us. The 9/11 attacks still seem like they just happened …
And so on—I fear ad infinitum.
I will now make use of Ms. Castle’s “imaginary debate” in order to undo the lies and misperceptions which she has unleashed upon her readers through definition. By adopting a positive approach, my aim is to clarify the question that she raises for the benefit of the reader. I hope that this will demonstrate the vitality of definition as a rubric of art and also as an important ally against misleading articles such as Ms. Castle’s. Finally, by utilizing Ms. Castle’s misleading and confounding article in this way, I hope that I have found a poetic and constructive use for it.
Q: So wasn’t the composer’s error a category mistake—the confusing of a real event with something artificial or illusory? A mix-up of Life and Art?
A: Maybe. But given that most people know the event only through representations—we weren’t there, after all—isn’t one’s sense of the “real” event itself illusory? How do you think those paranoid conspiracy theories about 9/11 being faked got started?
FAIROUZ: The composer (Stockhausen) was categorizing a terrorist attack as a “work of art.” The “category mistake” is Ms. Castle’s. Most people “know the event” by virtue of having witnessed the attacks through recordings (photographic images and videos). These recordings and not representations. Ms Castle questions whether “one’s sense of the ‘real’ event is itself illusory” and, in posing this question, demonstrates a disregard for the reality of life and death experienced on September 11th 2001 as well as reality in general.
This denial of reality is especially outrageous when we consider how the events reshaped the lives of survivors, extinguished the lives of the victims and maimed or disfigured the lives of countless others.
Q: Okay, but couldn’t we view some of the representations as works of art? Indeed, aren’t some 9/11 photos “sublime”—if not beautiful?
FAIROUZ: The photos that Ms Castle is referring to are, it must be stated once again, recordings and not representations.
A: But the subject matter is abhorrent! What sort of moral idiot discusses beauty and sublimity when images document an event in which thousands perished in horrific fashion?
FAIROUZ: The recordings of death and destruction are recordings of devastation as it occurred in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania on September 11th, 2001. The events (and those who were impacted by them) are events that unfolded and impacted real people, places and lives. These were not events of the theater or cinema and therefore the events cannot appropriately be referred to as “subject matter.” One might find the subject matter of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart “abhorrent” and some may even choose to find that work of fiction objectionable on those grounds. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 cannot be regarded as fiction because they were not fictional events. Ms. Castle seems to understand that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 were conveyed to her through “images [that] document an event in which thousands perished in horrific fashion.”
Q: But painters and writers (and photographers and filmmakers) have often represented events resulting in a huge loss of life! Witness the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic … What about Picasso’s Guernica?
FAIROUZ: Photographers are to be distinguished from the practitioners of those disciplines that are artistic in nature (painters, filmmakers and writers). They are referred to by Ms. Castle as representing reality but the photographer cannot represent reality. They record it. Even here, Ms Castle should clarify that she is referring to writers of fiction rather than journalists and to filmmakers who are engaged in the edited and scripted crafting of a film rather than the unedited documentary recording such as that which we witnessed as news of the attacks broke on 9/11.
Ms Castle then presents us with a folded mess which I will first present as annotated and then proceed to unfold her misconceptions: Here is the paragraph annotated:
“Witness” she says, “the sack of Rome” (by whom?), “the destruction of Pompeii” (is she referring to a specific account of this destruction? “the Titanic …” (assuming that she is referring to the sinking and not the ship itself, which account is she referring to?) What about Picasso’s Guernica (this is the only clear and named work of art mentioned in this list).
FAIROUZ: When Ms Castle enjoins us to “witness the Sack of Rome” she could be referring to the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410. Alternately, she could be referring to the sacking of Rome by the mutinous troops of Charles V on 6 May 1527. Those are two historic events that have shaped our world (shaping not only human lives but also our understanding of the continuum of history). Those sackings (together with others) are recorded in historical documents and records.
These events also inspired artistic representations. Two paintings, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre’s The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians (depicting the events of 410) and Johannes Lingelbach’s Sack of Rome (depicting the events of 1527) come immediately to mind. Ms Castle could just as easily and haphazardly be understood to be asking us to witness those artistic works. She could also be referring to a number of other works inspired by the event (or events) in question.
Similarly, Ms. Castle’s reference to “the destruction of Pompeii” could refer to the historical events surrounding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. But Ms Castle could just as easily claim to be speaking of John Martin’s magnificent painting of 1822 titled The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Is “the Titanic” a reference to the historical events surrounding the maiden voyage and sinking of the Titanic in 1912 or does Ms Castle refer to the ship itself here? Both are possible references as is James Cameron’s 1998 motion picture titled Titanic. I am limiting my speculation to the uncanny coincidence of the artistic titles that Ms Castle chose to invoke as they share their titles with the historical events which she describes in the same breath.
If we allow for divergence in titles then we will find that James Cameron’s film is now in good company among an array of novels, films, musical compositions and other works of art that were created with the ship and her sinking as their point of departure.
“But” Ms Castle says, “these representations involve things now distant from us. The 9/11 attacks still seem like they just happened …”
A written historical record of actual events (and not aftermath) must occur within close proximity of the event. If the medium of recording is to photograph or videotape the event then the photographer or videographer would have to be present at the event itself.
Artistic representation is a different issue altogether. In the survey of works mentioned (or alluded to) by Ms. Castle, we have examples that demonstrate just how gratuitous it is for her to confuse an already confounded argument by introducing the idea of elapsed distance or time between an event and its representation. Among the examples above are a 19th Century British painting which depicts a event that shook Rome in 410, a 16th century Dutch artist painting an expressive rendition of the darkness that enshrouded that same city a century earlier as well as a movie which depicted the sinking of the Titanic through painstaking historical devotion leading to a creative representation of the disaster that allowed us to “see” the events of April 14th, 1912 through a character of Cameron’s invention. Many histories which I have read render the sinking of Titanic into a far more flowery story than James Cameron managed to realize in his pitiless and deeply humane fictional account of the same history.
As far as September 11th, 2001 is concerned, the elapsed time (or perception of time since Ms Castle tells us that the “ 9/11 attacks still seem like they just happened …”) is not a factor. We have the photographs and videos which record portions of the realities of life and death on that day but we also have works of art representing the events and responding to them. These include Art Spiegelman’s harrowing comic book titled In The Shadow of No Towers which Spiegelman began immediately following his experiences at ground zero in 2001. He continued work on his comics and, after finishing the work, collected them into a board book which he published in 2004. In 2012, panels from Spiegelman’s work became the formal and musical inspiration for my own 4th Symphony which shares it’s title with his comic book.
Finally, here is Ms. Castle’s non-resolution:
“And so on—I fear ad infinitum.”
FAIROUZ: For all but the most detached of persons, Ms Castle’s practice of spreading confounded ambiguities (as well as her distasteful rhapsodies) can be undone with basic clarity and mature inquiry as well as a trust in basic simple common sense.
THE END OF MY ANTI-DISPUTE
Ms. Castle ends her essay with the following paragraph in which she characterizes Stockhausen’s statement as a “thesis.” She then concludes that, a decade later, his “proclamation retains it’s exorbitant power to wound”:
Granted, even after a decade, the conundrums can seem abstract, far less urgent than the ongoing human ramifications of 9/11. Yet one finds oneself casting around nonetheless for intellectual comfort: some intricate, abiding, fail-safe rebuttal of Stockhausen’s thesis. What is the relation between art and life? Stockhausen gave us a terrible gift: an idea that won’t go away, a truly shocking string of words. If you care about art and its meanings, his proclamation retains its exorbitant power to wound. Or so I’ve found; grandstanding alone can’t kill it.
A thesis is something that is laid down and which must be shown to be true by example or demonstration. Until then, a thesis is just a theory (a word with which it shares a root). A proclamation, on the other hand, is a declaration or publication that is made by an authority. Proclamations are held and expected to be true as they often contain matters of public importance or urgency.
That Stockhausen’s words could retain some “exorbitant power to wound” Ms Castle ten years after he made them is a testament in itself. The reasoned and itemized sifting of artistic objects and subjects such as history or politics
Grandstanding is a poor substitute for common sense and for the development of a complete and continuous appreciation of reality. That non-fractured sense and perception of the world can only come through definition.
Ms. Castle, an others who engage in similar approaches to reality-evasion, cannot evade the consequences of facing reality. Those consequences, as Ms Castle admits, including giving up recourse to form and order in favor of conundrums and tantrums (of the sort Ms Castle begins her article with). The Atlantic should be faced with the question: how did their editorial team allow an article to go to their presses even though its entire premise could have easily been rejected as unreasonable following the most simple process of self-evident observation.
Ms. Castle combines a self-assured sense of mission with an adolescent insincerity. Her delusions about art and misconceptions of reality are attitudes to be navigated rather than understood (especially since Ms. Castle is frank about her confusion).
The examples throughout this book should make amply clear that Ms Castle is not alone in her self-indulgent and personality-tinged deceit. She demonstrates a cocksure persistence that we’ve encountered in example after example throughout this book. This self-assured bluster (even at the point of ignoring the dead and confounding those who fall within its reach) can be seen as be a defining attitude of the half-sure narcissists whose words we’ve read in many variations across the centuries. That persistence means that this uncertain attitude toward art and life is not going away nor are we to reasonably expect it’s practitioners to relent. With a lot of patience, intellectual integrity and a steadfast trust in one’s common sense, however, they can be navigated.
In his “Notes on the Comic” (from a stellar collection of writings called The Dyer’s Hand), W. H. Auden worked out a General Definition with which I will end the current lesson:
A contradiction in the relation of the individual or the personal to the universal or the impersonal which does not involve the spectator or hearer in suffering or pity, which in practice means that it must not involve the actor in real suffering.
A situation in which the actor really suffers can only be found comic by children who see only the situation and are unaware of the suffering, as when a child laughs at a hunchback, or by human swine.
5. Paradise Lost; Babel Rediscovere
“It is one of the greatest ironies of our time that extremist voices use advanced media to propagate ignorant ideas! We must not let our screens, airwaves, broadband and social media be monopolised by those who pose the greatest danger to our world. We too must populate our media, and more important, the minds of our young people, with the purity and power of moderation.” – King Abdullah II
The sentiment above comes from King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Plenary to the 70th General Assembly at the United Nations. It was intended primarily as a quote focused on political ethics and morality but I also read it as applicable in the world as we examine the role of artistic construction in shaping an essentially poetic perception of it.
Stavinsky puts it this way (there’s no reason in the Bible as to why one cannot also read the account in Genesis this way):
“Let librettos and texts be published in translation, let synopses and arguments of plots be distributed in advance, let imaginations be appealed to, but do not change the sound and the stress of the words that have been composed to precisely certain music at precisely certain places.
The presentation of works in their original language is a sign of rich culture in my opinion. And, musically speaking, Babel is a blessing.”
Here is another version of the same idea from the Quran:
“[49:13] You people! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into communities and tribes, that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in God’s sight is he who fears Him. God is all-knowing and conversant with all.”
“The pope’s remarks drew shock from Chileans and immediate rebuke from victims and their advocates. They noted the accusers were deemed credible enough by the Vatican that it sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of ‘penance and prayer’ for his crimes in 2011.”
“His appointment outraged Chileans, badly divided the Osorno diocese and further undermined the church’s already shaky credibility in the country.”
“Germán Silva, a political scientist at Santiago’s Universidad Mayor, said the pope’s comments were a “tremendous error” that will reverberate in Chile and beyond.
Patricio Navia, political science professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago, said the Karadima scandal had radically changed how Chileans view the church.
“In the typical Chilean family, parents [now] think twice before sending their kids to Catholic school because you never know what is going to happen,” Navia said.”
“A paradigm has been broken,” said José Andrés Murillo, whose public allegations of abuse were among those that set off the crisis. “It’s like a huge wave that pushed the church’s ship to move.”
“The church is immersed in a deep crisis, and those who committed abuses against minors have to pay for those crimes and face justice, regardless of who may fall,” said Alejandro Álvarez of the lay organization Catholic Voices, which speaks out on a variety of church issues.”
“In Pittsburgh — site of some of the most ghastly acts in the report — and in dioceses around the country, Catholics grappled with the report’s findings.
Some had stayed with the church after explosive revelations of priest abuse over a decade ago, which implicated leaders but prompted promises by the church hierarchy of atonement. And now came descriptions of priests engaged in rape and child pornography for decades, using “whips, violence and sadism,” and in one case joining together in a secret cabal of abusers. Even more painful, the report contained accounts of bishops who had actively defended the accused priests.
‘I think right now it’s really hard to be a Catholic,’ said John Gehring, the Catholic program director of Faith in Public Life, a national network of faith leaders. ‘Everywhere you look, things seem to be falling apart.’”
In Boston, Barbara Bowe, a nurse who had grown up in Catholic schools, said she had fallen away from the church. And with the latest round of revelations, she seemed unlikely to return anytime soon.
“As far as priests and nuns being believed, that’s gone,” she said. “The authority is gone.”
A few blocks away from the white cross towering above the pastoral center of the Archdiocese of Miami, Mirta Criswell, 77, was loading dollar-store provisions into the back of a sedan. Of the report, she said, “I believe it 100 percent.”
Ms. Criswell said the sex abuse scandal that began in Boston in 2002 had been painful enough, but the latest reports had left her ever more exasperated. While the scandals would not erode her commitment to the faith, she believed they showed that some of the church rules needed to be revisited.
“The Catholic Church has to change,” Ms. Criswell said. “They have to let their priests marry, to have a family. Humans need sex.”
“Francis didn’t, however, provide any indication of what concrete measures he is prepared to take to sanction those bishops — in the U.S. and beyond — who covered up for sexually abusive priests.
‘We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death,’ he said.”
“As crisis envelops Catholic Church, is Pope Francis facing a ‘watershed moment’?
Catholics in Crisis: The Rift Between American Catholics and Their Church Paperback – November 1, 1997
“A provocative account of the issues that confront every Catholic explores homosexuality, abortion, divorce, celibacy among the clergy, and others, all played out in a narrative struggle between an American church and the power of Rome.”
A Crisis of Truth: The Attack on Faith, Morality and Mission in the Catholic Church Paperback – June 1, 1983
October 29, 1972
“Though here and there a little wild and wrong-headed, “Bare Ruined Choirs” is one of the most interesting books of the year, a brand new stick-waving Old Testament prophet’s careful analysis of the crisis of the Roman Catholic Church — a crisis linked to that of American civilization as a whole. What happened? asks the prophet of the Lord, Garry Wills (political columnist and author of the highly praised “Nixon Agonistes”). One moment “the two Johns” are reigning serenely — Kennedy in the White House, making Americans proud of their country; Pope John in the Vatican, convincing not only Catholics but “all men of good will” that Mother Church is the noblest of first-ladies. The nest moment America is a network of official and unofficial bomb-factories, and the Jesuit schools, intellectual front-line of Catholicism, are closing down, wrecked by mere human marriages. Soon the only zealous “faithful” (though they hate the Mass in English) are F.B.I. men tracking Berrigans. What power could so easily smash the majestic age-old church?
Why, the church, of course — the true, passionate, apostolic church! If the answer sounds silly and embarrassing, then a proof of Wills’s power is that he pretty well makes it stick. He makes a case so strong and original that only the prejudiced or obstinate will be able to dismiss him. His book is sure to become study material for church groups of all denominations; it’s not just false religion in the Vatican that Wills is out to smash.
His book-long argument is built very much like a medieval sermon — I hope not by accident. The analysis begins with a fine evocation of how it felt to grow up Catholic: the textures of things, the smells, the mysteries, above all the sense of apartness, safety in the timeless immutability of the church. The evocation lets the non-Catholic in on how it felt and thus on how it feels to have lost all that forever; but it does more. It sets up in dramatic form (a sermonic exemplum) the causes of collapse.”
Saudi Arabia Suffers Shock Collapse In Inward Investment
Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom
FEB 18, 2016
It can’t last. The U.S. better get ready.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Elements of Instability Within Stability+
By Daryl Champion
To outsiders, Saudi Arabia appears calm and stable. Western governments friendly to the Saudi dynasty are keen to promote the image of a firmly-entrenched and legitimate regime, as of course, is the Saudi royal family itself. (1) How accurate are these appearances?
It appears that all in the kingdom is not as stable as the image-makers would have us believe. The dramatic social and economic developments of recent years are now visibly opening gaps between generations and enlarging those that already exist among economic classes.
WAHHÂBÎSM & THE SALAFÎ SECT
UNDERSTANDING THE GREAT CONSPIRACY
An article was published by The Guardian titled Is Shigeru Miyamoto’s Game Over at Nintendo?
Prince Saud al-Faisal recalled that “this government has shown versatility and permanence. We have faced many problems. When oil came in the ’50s, they said this country cannot survive because the wealth will change the underpinnings of the government. But it’s here. In the ’60s, when they were calling Nasser the wave of the future, Nasser went away and the government is still here. After the liberation of Kuwait, saying that hundreds of thousands of American troops existing in Saudi Arabia would surely mean the death knell of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia– it is still here.”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Communication is part of God’s plan for us and an essential way to experience fellowship. Made in the image and likeness of our Creator, we are able to express and share all that is true, good, and beautiful. We are able to describe our own experiences and the world around us, and thus to create historical memory and the understanding of events. But when we yield to our own pride and selfishness, we can also distort the way we use our ability to communicate. This can be seen from the earliest times, in the biblical stories of Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 4:4-16; 11:1-9). The capacity to twist the truth is symptomatic of our condition, both as individuals and communities. On the other hand, when we are faithful to God’s plan, communication becomes an effective expression of our responsible search for truth and our pursuit of goodness.
In today’s fast-changing world of communications and digital systems, we are witnessing the spread of what has come to be known as “fake news”. This calls for reflection, which is why I have decided to return in this World Communications Day Message to the issue of truth, which was raised time and time again by my predecessors, beginning with Pope Paul VI, whose 1972 Message took as its theme: “Social Communications at the Service of Truth”. In this way, I would like to contribute to our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth.
1. What is “fake” about fake news?
The term “fake news” has been the object of great discussion and debate. In general, it refers to the spreading of disinformation on line or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.
The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is “captious”, inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration. The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function. Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.
The difficulty of unmasking and eliminating fake news is due also to the fact that many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions. Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead, it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.
2. How can we recognize fake news?
None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods. This is no easy task, since disinformation is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms. Praiseworthy efforts are being made to create educational programmes aimed at helping people to interpret and assess information provided by the media, and teaching them to take an active part in unmasking falsehoods, rather than unwittingly contributing to the spread of disinformation. Praiseworthy too are those institutional and legal initiatives aimed at developing regulations for curbing the phenomenon, to say nothing of the work being done by tech and media companies in coming up with new criteria for verifying the personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.
Yet preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the “snake-tactics” used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place. This was the strategy employed by the “crafty serpent” in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news (cf. Gen 3:1-15), which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (cf. Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbour, society and creation. The strategy of this skilled “Father of Lies” (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.
In the account of the first sin, the tempter approaches the woman by pretending to be her friend, concerned only for her welfare, and begins by saying something only partly true: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Gen 3:1). In fact, God never told Adam not to eat from any tree, but only from the one tree: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat” (Gen 2:17). The woman corrects the serpent, but lets herself be taken in by his provocation: “Of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, “You must not eat it nor touch it, under pain of death” (Gen 3:2). Her answer is couched in legalistic and negative terms; after listening to the deceiver and letting herself be taken in by his version of the facts, the woman is misled. So she heeds his words of reassurance: “You will not die!” (Gen 3:4).
The tempter’s “deconstruction” then takes on an appearance of truth: “God knows that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). God’s paternal command, meant for their good, is discredited by the seductive enticement of the enemy: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye and desirable” (Gen 3:6). This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.
What is at stake is our greed. Fake news often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings. The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom. That is why education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.
3. “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32)
Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life. Dostoevsky’s observation is illuminating: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.” (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2).
So how do we defend ourselves? The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth. In Christianity, truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false. The truth is not just bringing to light things that are concealed, “revealing reality”, as the ancient Greek term aletheia (from a-lethès, “not hidden”) might lead us to believe. Truth involves our whole life. In the Bible, it carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen. Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall. In this relational sense, the only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – is the living God. Hence, Jesus can say: “I am the truth” (Jn 14:6). We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us. This alone can liberate us: “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).
Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.
4. Peace is the true news
The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language. If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons. Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.
I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.
To this end, drawing inspiration from a Franciscan prayer, we might turn to the Truth in person:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.