A Proud Father and a Proud and Appreciative Canadian

What a weekend! On Friday evening I went to a concert rather than to synagogue. After about a twenty-year absence, Eric (my fourth child) returned to playing the trumpet in a newly formed orchestra, the Summerhill Community Orchestra. The opening number, Telemann’s “Trumpet Concerto,” was played by my son. He also conducted. I was bursting with pride. He was terrific. Another wonderful performance followed with Victoria Yeh on the violin playing “Romance for Violin.” Then Sarah John conducted Rossini’s rousing classic “Overture to the Barber of Seville.” The second half featured Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.

What a great evening!

Saturday morning was spent initially in Torah study discussing slavery and freedom, about which I will write a separate blog, and Saturday afternoon visiting a close friend.  On Saturday evening, we went to another concert at Koerner Hall, primarily to hear David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana band, a fusion of Jewish and Cuban music. They were excellent as always. Buchbinder’s trumpet playing of this unique Afro-Cuban/Jewish/Jazz fusion gets better and better as do the original compositions. Hilario Durán, a Cuban-trained pianist, is absolutely brilliant. The accompanying players are all great: John Johnson on Reeds and Flute, Aleksander Gajic on the Violin, Justin Gray on Bass, Mark Kelso on Drums, Joaquín Núñez-Hidalgo on Congas and Percussion, and the vocalist Maryem Tollar.

But the hit of the evening for me, surprisingly, came in the first half when we heard Kuné (meaning “together”), Canada’s global orchestra formerly known as the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra celebrating the release of their debut album on Universal Music Canada. A year ago, Mervon Mehta, who runs the performance side of The Royal Conservatory of Music, initiated and created a new ensemble of musicians to celebrate Canada’s cultural diversity and pluralism. Howard Buchbinder was the artistic director. I expected an orchestra with outstanding musicians from around the world. I did not expect such fascinating and original music performed with such great artistry. I cannot recall when I have seen a pre-act get a standing ovation that forced the performers to come back on stage and play another number. I saw and listened to 13 virtuoso musicians, each brilliant in his or her own right.

Let me suggest a taste – though you should listen to the music; the CD, simply entitled Kuné, can be ordered online. The evening began with Canadian First Nation drumming, but quickly merged from that start into the violin and subsequent singing by Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, a Canadian Métis. The Gypsy music evolved into jazz, and then, in a subsequent number, into Irish and Scottish reels from the Maritimes. The fusion was seamless, original and entrancing.

Demetrios Petsalakis, originally from Greece, played the Oud (he also played guitar) that, with the other instruments, emerged as an original jazz composition. One of the most lyrical as well as haunting pieces was performed by Padideh Ahrarnejad who arrived in Canada just over a year ago from Iran. She played the Tar and sang. And if you want to hear rhythm, you had to listen to the percussion and singing of Aline Morales of Brazil as well as the final number, after the standing ovation, led by a flautist, Lasso (Salif Sanou) from Burkina Faso, who played the talking drum in a thrilling unique composition. These were not soloists, though solos were played within each piece, but true fusion music which blended instruments, styles, musical history and motifs from all across the world.

Every single one of the musicians deserves their own accolades, including:
Sasha Boychouk (Ukraine): Woodwinds & Ethnic Ukrainian Flutes
Luis Deniz (Cuba): Saxophone
Anwar Khurshid (Pakistan): Sitar & vocals
Paco Luviano (Mexico): Acoustic & Electric Bass
Matías Recharte (Peru): Cajón, Drums & Percussion
Selcuk Suna (Turkey): Clarinet
Dorjee Tsering (Tibet): Dranyen, Flute, Piwang & Vocals.

I had been missing my movies. In the wee hours on Sunday, instead of writing a blog, I watched Denzel Washington on TV in the dystopian film, The Book of Eli by the Hughes Brothers. It was a classical Denzel performance with its hesitations, mannerisms, morose disposition and inward reflection, but this time with a very troubled but very dedicated and committed soul. This combined Christian revivalist and Wild West movie set in a destroyed wasteland of the future is at times fascinating and at other times simply boring and leaden with scenes too stretched out and infused with too much preaching and insufficient witnessing. Denzel is a mad preacher on route to save mankind by transporting the last remaining copy of the Bible to the West, but with his own indifference to the suffering of others. In the process of his walk across the continent, he comes face to face, not so much with his inner demons, as with himself as a sinner even though dedicated to his mission. A very interesting and disturbing film, but not a must see.

I then watched a ten-year-old film, Untraceable, more about the female FBI agent, Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), set on capturing a serial killer, than the killer himself, the archetype of a sadistic psychopath, a callous loner with no or blunted emotions, exploiting, playing with and eventually destroying the life of another rooted in an impulse for revenge for a perceived injustice and with no ability to feel guilt or express remorse. The film has a unique and, for its time, prescient twist. The slow agonizing deaths are broadcast on social media to millions of viewers. It is an archetypal cop/thriller/horror film which is fast-paced and horrifying, if you like and appreciate the genre, but totally implausible if you examine the timetable of events with any close attention. I do not and did not understand why I watched it.

The third film I saw was both much more interesting and very understandable why I watched. One of my major interests is the ethics of bystanders, whether the Rwandan genocide or individual malfeasance and silence when witnessing an injustice or atrocity. That was the core focus of Barry Levinson’s HBO film Paterno in which Al Pacino, another great actor with an even broader reach than Denzel Washington, plays the celebrated coach, Joe Paterno, who, for over four decades, was a very celebrated and winning head football coach of the Nittany Lions at Penn State, but who is suddenly and unceremoniously fired by the trustees of the university, ostensibly for not adequately and appropriately dealing with the pedophilia, sexual molesting and perhaps male rape committed by one of his veteran assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky.

What did “JoePa” hear, when did he first hear it, what did he do, and how much attention and effort did he pay to the rumours and complaints about his assistant coach? The question of why is more muted in total disproportion to the noise and demonstrations by Penn State idolatrous fans, whose unexamined enthusiasm for Joe is also portrayed, perhaps at too great length. What started as a supposed report in 1999 turned into a media explosion twelve years later. Al Pacino is as mute as the 84-year-old ex-hero he plays, conveying his dealing with the scandal with a glance, a shrug, a sigh, a thrust forward of one stooped shoulder.

The question of Sandusky’s guilt, though there is some, but not much, doubt, is accepted as a premise. Sandusky is now serving a minimum of 30 years in prison. He will die there. He is a peripheral presence in the film. The reasons for Joe not reporting him slips out in installments over the course of the movie – distraction, presumption of innocence, friendship, disbelief, preoccupation with other matters, structural deficiencies in the university, inattention to a matter seen as of peripheral importance, the focus on winning rather than the well-being of the players – these and other reasons and excuses are put forth over the course of the movie. The current zeal for reporting predators just did not seem to exist. It was another era. Joe is a heroic remnant from an earlier age who could still insist, without any in-depth self-examination, that the events had “nothing to do with me.”

Joe is played with a sense of humanity before and in spite of the tragedy he faced. His extraordinary composure in dealing with the scandal even as it ate into his very sense of himself (he died just months after being fired), and his own fleeting doubts and questions as he urged the students to suppress their idolatry and get on with being excellent students, makes him both deserving of being admired but also makes the viewer more upset with his lack of insight. The film is a very empathetic portrayal of a bystander who had been an enormous success but ultimately failed the ethical test in the last twelve years of his life. In some sense, the failure is as gruesome as that of the prophet Eli played by Denzel Washington.

From yesterday’s morose morning, in the evening we went to the Hot Docs theatre to see the documentary on Itzhak Perlman, simply called Itzhak. He is both approachable and loveable, an honest but diplomatic commentator and a great and funny raconteur. The film is absolutely marvellous, a fly-on-the wall documentary of this extraordinary talent and his wife, Toby, full of life, humour and her own centre of will. The editing of Helen Yum is simply superb and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The film takes you on a roller coaster ride of a man so grounded yet so ambitious to reach and teach how to aspire for the heavens.

The film begins with Itzhak playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of one of his beloved baseball games and near the end there is a moving performance of the theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams. (Perlman played first violin in the orchestral score of the movie.) The film could not possibly include everything in this great man’s wonderful life, but I was secretly hoping, given my Canadian nationalism and pride, that the film would include a segment from his performance in Ottawa at the National Art Centre’s 150th year celebration of Canada’s birth when last September he played “a musical love letter to the movies,” a sort of reprieve and update of his 2006 Academic Awards performance.

If you want to hear great music, if you want to watch a courageous, extraordinarily talented but funny, down to earth and very humane individual, do not miss the film. The fact that the film is perforated with his extraordinary classical violin playing, and a few scenes in various genres other than classical music, is both inspiring and an aesthetic delight. Rarely do we find ethics and beauty so intricately intertwined. What an uplifting way to end the weekend!

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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The overcoat: a musical tailoring – a review

Just over 57 years ago on a cold winter evening in 1961, I sat with Herb Whittaker, the theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, in a basement theatre on 47 Fraser Avenue created and developed by George Luscombe’s new theatre company, Workshop Productions. Herb Whitaker was a genteel, positive reviewer, an enthusiastic supporter of theatre even as he appeared so conventional. I even wondered as I watched the overcoat: a musical tailoring last evening whether the main character, Akakiv, performed by Geoffrey Sirett, had been modelled on Herb since Herb’s first job had been an office clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal’s Windsor Station. Herb’s review of Hey Rube which we saw that evening over half a century ago, in contrast to my own unboundaried enthusiasm, was gentle and uplifting, full of plaudits and supports, but without my emotional excess.

Workshop Productions in 1961 was not the Bluma Appel Theatre. Nor was it the Royal Alex on King Street or even the Crest Theatre, that had been the only professional theatre in Toronto on Mt. Pleasant north of the tony area of Rosedale; that theatre had just gone broke. This was a theatre put together out of industrial leftovers, not with a curtain or proscenium, but a thrust stage. It was the precursor to the flowering of theatre in Toronto led by Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Lab Theatre and the Tarragon.

Workshop Productions was set in the heart of Toronto’s old industrial district made up of factories and spillovers from Toronto’s garment district just east on Spadina Avenue. I had worked for several years in the early fifties as an apprentice cutter in Hollywood Children’s Wear just north of that theatre. When I reviewed Hey Rube, I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Toronto and the junior drama critic then writing for the Toronto Daily Star under the supervision of the entertainment editor, Nathan Cohen. There were two other patrons in the bleacher seating, both friends of the cast who had been given free tickets. As tiny as the theatre was, it felt totally empty.

Both Herb and I wrote rave reviews. Hey Rube ran for months with full houses every evening. The play blew my mind, even though the only actors on stage that I recognized were George Sperdakos and Joan Ferry. At the University of Toronto as a young pre-med student, Sperdakos had recruited me as part of a small band of students in the fall of 1956 to volunteer to re-fight the Spanish Civil War in Hungary, this time against the Soviet empire rather than a fascist one. Fortunately for us, the Russians had been very efficient in crushing the uprising and our romantic gesture went up in a whiff from one of George’s then ever-present cigarettes.

Hey Rube was a very different type of revolutionary experience, one inspired by the left, but in the realm of art and theatre. Strongly influenced by Joan Littlewood’s experimental theatre in London in Britain, George had returned to Toronto to introduce a form of theatre that avoided the drawing room dramas of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen or even the kitchen sink theatre of the new upstart playwrights in London such as John Osborne. This was theatre more focused on movement than on words, on feelings more than ideas, on acrobatics more than Shakespearian enunciation, and on visual creativity more than auditory stimulation. It seemed to have more to do with the circus and vaudeville than the plays I had learned to read. Hey Rube was heavily influenced by the commedia dell’arte Italian tradition of theatre.

The theatre notes in the Canadian Stage co-production with Tapestry Opera of the overcoat: a musical tailoring which I saw it the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening made no mention of that tradition or any influences from it. Yet in its movements, in its use of mime and the traditions of the world of clowns and circuses, in its swift and sudden changes of perspective, it is strongly linked to these roots. Most of all, the overcoat avoids subtlety in favour of word play and tricksters. It is minimalist theatre in its design, but very intricate yet overflowing with exuberance and gusto in its staging.

Unlike Hey Rube, which was a rough work, ragged on the edges though full of vitality at the core, the overcoat is a bespoke production, an intricately detailed piece of material artistry, an operatic play. Instead of being based on the premise that, “I think therefore I am,” cogito ergo sum, the clear and distinct idea at the core is emotional rather than cognitive. It is based on physical theatre of movement more in tune with Cirque du Soleil. The production insists that since I sing and move, therefore I am.

But it asks a basic question. What am I when I sing and move? A zero, a nothing, someone who does not count at all, who cannot count and put numbers in order and does not count because he is not recognized as a person by anyone else? Am I a zero suited only to live in a loony bin? Or am I a one? Can I even be a two or even a three and rise, not just above the ordinary worker, but to the raised walkways of the upper middle class? To answer that question, we in the audience have to see and hear and get beneath the tailor-made outerwear that both disguises the self and transforms it into an artistic artifice.

This is an example of physical theatre as the lining of an opera, but it is still primarily a well-crafted opera. Usually I hate opera, though this is a judgement based only on attending three, a judgement made though two of my best friends were ardent opera buffs and one was an opera critic. But I have too much of a tin ear. Even last evening, as enthusiastic and entranced as I was by what I saw and heard, in my ignorance I am sure I missed the playfulness, the patchwork of the tapestry, that borrowed and layered from a history of music. For the first time in my life, I deeply regretted that I was a musical ignoramus, though I could at least pick up the repeated melodies associated with and allowing identification of the different characters.

Jill Lepore’s first lecture in her Priestley series that I wrote about recently was called, “Numbers.” The keynote speaker at the Walter Gordon symposium addressed the issue of counting. But the topic Deborah Stone addressed and analyzed was the ethics of counting. The opera on stage last evening dramatized a time in the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century when the foundation stones of modernity were established in the dual supports of numeracy and being counted, being recognized. If I just count, do I count? Do I matter?

The opera opens with a mime playing off Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker as he offers a brief plaintive tune on an accordion that ignites the stage with its perkiness. Immediately, I snapped to attention and remained mesmerized for the whole production. I was reminded of Joan Littlewood’s dictum that if you have to choose between god and the clowns, choose clowns. At first, I thought the setting would be an asylum, but that simply framed the opera. The centrepiece was the office of bookkeepers working in the industries of the nineteenth century.

In the simplicity, there was never a moment of confusion where you had to think about what anything meant. In a whirlwind of athleticism counterpoised against rigid men working as accounting clerks in the nineteenth century of Nikolai Gogol, the predecessors to men in grey flannel suits, we encounter both loneliness and alienation of the central figure in the production evoked by what my untrained ears heard as a pitch-perfect score. (Nathan Cohen had taught me to write theatre criticism with full conviction even if I was ignorant, but I have been too steeped in the Socratic philosophic tradition to follow suit.)

It was as if I were watching an adult and musical version of a Dr. Seuss book written where the rhymes are fantasy-filled and full of kinetic energy. The clerks may ride to work hanging onto the straps and bars of their tram or subway cars, but they are forced to move together to reflect and express the rhythm of the era, operatic music brought onto the stage of a music hall. In part agit prop and Charlie Chaplin, in the scene where the main character, Geoffrey Sirett, a baritone singing the part of Akakiv, gets totally drunk and wasted, probably for the first time in his life, I was taken back to the days of Brendan Behan and his plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage written under the inspiration of Joan Littlewood’s ideas. The Irish poetry of these plays of everyday speech were undercut by Behan’s alcoholism. A year before he died in the mid 1960’s from his drinking, I remember when he stayed with us – or really did not stay for he was always about town carousing – and I went looking for him. His pessimistic vision of the world, unlike the false optimism of the hero of the overcoat, turned him into a zero instead of the great artist that I believed he had been destined to become.

Thank goodness that Morris Panych, as the director and writer of the libretto, and James Rolfe, as the composer, have been more disciplined and have been able to turn out such a bespoke overcoat to make any member of the cloth trade on Spadina Avenue proud. The work is simply brilliant, enhanced by a wonderful set by Leslie Dala that evokes the steel rigidity of the iron gating of those old nineteenth-century original “skyscrapers” with the mobility and flexibility of a three-ring circus. Together with the lighting director and other talented musicians and actors, instead of witnessing the destruction of well-ordered and considered complacent middle-class theatre, we experience traditional middle-class theatre raised to a whole new level. And the audience with its standing ovation expressed their absolute delight with such a wonderful work of art. The pathos and wit were clever without being ribald. Grandiosity and down-to-earth story-telling, gentility and a satire of that gentility, exuberant energy and repressed and mechanical motion, poetic verse and music, had been combined without any need to dip into vulgarity.

In an era of celebrity politics where the main concern of the president of the United States is his ratings even as his personal character is revealed to be more deplorable even that anyone expected, where counting becomes more important than being counted for what you do and achieve, where selfies become more significant than recognition by others, the overcoat is a rendition which goes back to the roots and foundations of our current disorder, in counting in order to be counted. When presented with such poetry and music, with clever versifying and impressionistic costuming, vitality and intelligence, the nuttiness of the contemporary world is given depth, beauty and resonance. Wit and zaniness are grounded in a critique of reality and we see and hear magic.

As Jill Lepore opined in her lecture, the essence of the world of numbers and counting is discernment.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Power and Influence in Universities

One Sample Feedback on the Previous Blog

  1. Right on, brother Howard. Where and how did the U lose its soul re such matters as tenure, etc., and plagiarism. It is as if those who secretly do not believe in intellectual integrity have grabbed control on the spurious grounds that making judgments of quality and/or honesty are oppressive. Every plagiarism case I brought — 2 in 40 yrs. of teaching — was thwarted by ad hominem accusations of being “harsh” (sic) and mean to these poor students. It was as if having called out the Emperor for nakedness had been the crime, not the student’s brazen behavior!!

 

Universities are not supposed to be about power. But they are most definitely; primarily one kind of power – creative energy. They are not supposed to be about power as coercion.

Let me approach the issue from a very angular take. As some know, in my youth I was a playwright and drama critic. The play I wrote as an undergraduate, Root Out of Dry Ground, was scheduled for a professional production when the last and only professional theatre in Toronto folded just before my play was to go on stage. Instead, the play was produced and directed by Robert Gill at Hart House, the University of Toronto theatre. It was the first original play put on in that theatre ever. The drama was also put on the English courses in faculties such as medicine, dentistry and engineering. I was an ersatz playwright.

Unknowingly, I had joined the school of angry young male playwrights. I blamed institutions. I blamed bureaucracies. They had failed humanity. As one character puts it in David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross,  “I swear…it’s not a world of men…it’s not a world of men, Machine…it’s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders…what it is, it’s a fucked-up world…there’s no adventure to it.”

David Mamet is a real playwright known perhaps best for his plays and movie scripts such as the one above and Speed the Plow. They are written as poetic prose extracted from everyday speech in the best of the Irish dramatic tradition – like Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a booth in a Chinese restaurant with Shelly Levene breathlessly, in defensive stuttering, talking to John Williamson.

LEVENE

John…John…John.  Okay.  John.

John.  Look:

(pause)

The Glengarry Highland’s leads,

you’re sending Roma out.  Fine.

He’s a good man.  We know what he

  1. He’s fine.  All I’m saying,

you look at the board, he’s

throwing…wait, wait, wait, he’s

throwing them away, he’s throwing

the leads away.  All that I’m

saying, that you’re wasting leads.

I don’t want to tell you your job.

All that I’m saying, things get

set, I know they do, you get a

certain mindset… A guy gets a

reputation.  We know how this…all

I’m saying, put a closer on the job.

There’s more than one man for the…

Put a…wait a second, put a proven

man out…and you watch, now wait a

second–and you watch your dollar

volumes…You start closing them

for fifty ‘stead of twenty-

five…you put a closer on the…

All I am saying is that what Williams had accused him of is true – that he is throwing his leads away and developing a reputation for not living up to his potential as a more contemporary Death of a Salesman. Mamet’s black noir movie scripts, such as Heist, are similarly more cold than cool, cruel to the point that compassion has been pushed over a cliff. In his plays and scripts about distress and disquiet, turmoil and trouble, confrontation and contestation, words are used as weapons to conduct verbal warfare. When words become armaments, we are in the realm of coercion, of corrupting power rather than the creative power that propels words used to influence. When language is used to sell rather than persuade, we are into spin and propaganda rather than education.

The currency then becomes money rather than ideas; material influence supersedes intellectual influence. As Williamson puts it in the play:

Money. A fortune. Money lying on the ground. Murray? When was the last time he went out on a sit? Sales contest? It’s laughable. It’s cold out there now, John. It’s tight. Money is tight.

In 2010, Mamet published an iconoclastic treatise on drama called Theatre precisely because he had come to believe that it is theatricality that counts and not something esoteric like “drama.” A theatre is a marketplace where a play is sold to an audience – nothing less and, more importantly, nothing more. His treatise was decidedly anti-authority and anti-theory – of acting, of directing, of writing. In the following year, he published another volume, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture that was decidedly anti-authentic as well as anti-formal authority. The themes, though not yet given the clear light of day or a searchlight focus, were adumbrated in one of his most famous plays written two decades earlier, Oleanna, about political correctness and a college professor falsely accused of sexual harassment in the context of a war of students against faculty, administrators against scholars, and, most of all, the war of the sexes. Then he laid out the sides of the battle.

Twenty years later, he overtly took sides – with Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, with those who use power to reduce rather than seduce women and, perhaps, even worse, portray them as willing accomplices in a male unilateral exertion of power. In Mamet’s eyes, the real victims are not the men of power nor those who play along in the game of sexual warfare. The victims are the once prominent authentic and formal authority figures, now hapless and careworn, a scholar with an international reputation and a chair of his department or even a dean, now reduced to a piece of flotsam tossed around by the competing powers of the zeitgeist – a populist uprising in the name of either self-rule or rule by a figure of ostensible coercive power.

Both institutional formal authority and authentic scholarly authority are discarded into the garbage heap of history as the Donald Trumps and the Vladimir Putins, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğans and the Xi Jinpings, the Viktor Orbáns and Mateusz Morawieckis, purge mandarins and verbally assault civil society opponents (some do much more) in the battle to re-assert male authority in a threatening egalitarian world. The scepticism at the heart of academia has been turned against itself to deny the value of climate change or democracy, the rule of law or the rule of wisdom. In this larger story of the competition to grasp the brass ring of power, the university is shunted aside as irrelevant to the course of history. Instead of doctors of philosophy advising political leaders, their place is taken by spin doctors. Instead of a search for peace and prosperity, both are easily sacrificed to the need for either a circus to preoccupy the mind or a war as the ultimate technique of distraction to avert one’s attention from domestic scandals.

How did we enter this age of male paranoia? How did the university contribute to its own increasing irrelevance? How did the values of a steady hand and wise foresight become displaced by vacillation and volatility, self-evident contradiction and chaos, malaise and unrest? How did emotion displace reason, impulse displace reflection and consideration, and ego displace the responsibility o government for the sake of welfare and wellbeing of society?

The seeds were sewn when the university was at its zenith as a Sanctuary of Method, as an institution dedicated to providing disciplined professionals in a number of fields that could serve as social leaders – whether developing an expertise and mastery of a body of English literature and the techniques for dissecting and understanding that body of creative work, or in professions such as medicine and law. The university was no longer a place for amateurs, a place to cultivate and instill the values and norms of a ruling class, but an elite of expertise that could serve to guide the world. The university as a Sanctuary of Truth in defence of a faith had been displaced by the university as a Sanctuary of Method.

The process began when philosophers, beginning with René Descartes in the context of the emergence of the modern nation-state as a revival of the ancient Hebrew nation during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, sought to ground knowledge in certainty rather than faith. The beginning of the end came three hundred years later with the publication of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Proof and Alfred Tarski’s indefinability theory in the 1930s during the zenith of the Sanctuary of Method. What began to end with Gödel and Tarski initially started with Descartes.

Descartes, the father of a coordinate system so critical to statistical analysis, of analytic geometry and infinitesimal calculus, all incidentally developed from his original interest in advancing his early profession as a military engineer, of the first principle of philosophy that doubt itself established the certainty of existence and thought since if one doubted, there had to be an individual doing the doubting and the doubting was itself an act of thinking. Instead of placing Aristotelian final causes on a pedestal, he smashed the quest as idolatrous and adopted the conviction of absolute freedom to allow reason to draw its own conclusions.

The history of that quest with its many manifestations came to a full stop with Kurt Gödel. No system of thought with its axioms and proofs could demonstrate its own consistency. This was the first half of his incompleteness theorem. From a system of axioms one can develop theorems expressed as effective procedures or algorithms so crucial to the modern information age (which I will deal with in a separate blog). However, no system could be complete in itself. Many academics became convinced that the only value of a theoretical system was its use value since the goal of establishing a solid theoretical foundation for certainty that was both complete and consistent was impossible. Nor, as Alfred Tarski subsequently determined, could any system be based on any effort to define truth since truth was proven to be undefinable. Lacking any fundamental foundation in consistency, coherence, completeness and clarity, the walls around the elite leadership in society eroded and, by the 1960s, virtually everywhere the university as a Sanctuary of Method was displaced by a university as a Social Service Station dedicated to a social problem-solving agenda rather than a self-contained collective of systems dedicated to setting standards for society.

But how did we get from a Sanctuary of Method and a Social Service Station view of the university to our current model? And what is that model? And what happened to authority, power and influence in the process?

 

To be continued.

Jazz and Deep Wells

Jazz and Deep Wells

by

Howard Adelman

Today is Black Sunday. I know there is no such thing, but I wanted to convey how I see the day by playing off this past Friday of widespread deep discounts and sales and yesterday’s experience. Today I have not simply a two-for-one offer but a two-for-two-for-two offer. What could be better? On the other hand, what could be worse – not only receiving two long missives on the same day, but the second about two entirely different topics and each topic about two different events. The blog will clarify.

Yesterday morning as I was leaving for Torah study, I saw a peregrine falcon eating its prey on the front lawn. I presume that it was an unwitting squirrel. I had never seen a peregrine let alone one up close. I had read that they had been sighted in Toronto, but it was startling to see such a huge bird in front of me. I thought it was the male that I saw, for the mate which appeared was somewhat smaller. But when I read up on falcons this morning, I learned that it must have been the female for females are significantly larger than their masculine mates.

From the rear – the angle from which I watched it – it seemed to have a huge back of thick blue-grey feathers and a black head. The male – the smaller of the pair – had more distinct white markings on its chest. Did you know that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, in a dive reaching over 200 mph? Its highest measured speed is 242 mph. But if peregrines now nest in tall buildings in urban areas, its nest must have been blocks away.

I took the sighting of the peregrine to be a sign – a sign of a positive tale on the human propensity to destroy our planet and other species. For the peregrines were once endangered because of the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT. However, with the banning of DDT, their numbers have rebounded enormously. I also took the sighting in a different sense, for in Torah yesterday morning, before we even started our textual examination, I opened the volume to initially read the tale of Jacob’s ladder that comes immediately before Jacob met Rachel at the well.

Needless to say, I had never read the short account through the eyes of a falcon. If you recall, Jacob was fleeing towards his uncle Laban because he believed Esau was in hot pursuit given that he, Jacob, had deceived Esau out of his father’s blessing to double the act of treachery in the story when he got his brother to give him Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mug of soup. In his dream, (Genesis 28:12-15), Jacob envisioned a ladder or a stairway reaching upwards into the sky. Angels of God were traipsing up and down the stairs – if they were coming from heaven why not down first and then up? God then promised Jacob that his descendants would spread everywhere over the earth, north and west, east and west. God also promised to protect him wherever he went and “bring you back to this land.” Further God said, “I will not leave you until what I have done what I have promised you.” (28:15)

If God had made that promise to falcons, He clearly kept his word. Falcons, once on the verge of extinction, are now everywhere. Further, falcons are like angels rising on the upward drafts of the wind and then diving down for prey. Falcons have superb vision. An excellent capacity for survival has been intertwined with a theme of destruction, preying on other species necessary for survival and repeatedly being faced themselves with species genocide.

The story that was the subject of yesterday’s Torah study was the one that followed, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Jacob continued on after his visionary dream. What did he see first. Verse 2 of chapter 29 reads: “There before his eyes was a well in the open.” The vision was not a dream sequence, but a real sighting. It was not of soaring and diving angels, but of a “well in the open,” also translated as in the “field.” Vision is now grounded. It is focused on earthly things, not long-range promises. And the focus is a well.

As Rabbi Splansky pointed out in comparing three “well” stories, the one where Jacob’s father, Isaac, or his emissary, encountered Rebecca, and the one where Moses came to a well were the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite, had been chased away from watering their sheep until Moses’ intervention, in each case a well is a symbol of overcoming scarcity, scarcity of water and scarcity of progeny. For the women are barren, either because they are virgins or because they seemingly cannot bear children. In the case of both Rebecca and Rachel, the continuity of the generations through time, a necessary correlation to spatially spreading over the land, seems at first to be denied them. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren when first encountered. In each case, the opening of the wombs of the women is attributed to God.

Hence, the well Rabbi Splansky introduced to the group as a basis for a dialectic of correspondence yet difference in all three stories. (The tale of the competition between the first-born and a younger brother was not a topic of focus.) Verse 2 in English and Hebrew reads:

And he looked, and behold! a well in the field, and behold! three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well. בוַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר:

בְאֵ֣ר

Be-ayr or Beer, as in Beersheva, is a well or pit. A well is a source, not simply of physical water, but of God’s word, of His spirit, of His promise. A well is not a natural spring. It is built by humans. It is an artifice of human labour and ingenuity. When Abraham confronted Abimelech after the latter’s servants denied him access to a well Abraham had dug, Abraham insisted on buying it back with money to define in contractural terms what had been promised by God in a covenant. When Moses travelled to Beersheva, he was promised water. “And from there to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses: “assemble the people that I may give them water.” (Number 21:16) And all of Israel sang a song: “Spring up oh well; sing to it.”

The well and the water in it offer a voice from God. It is not just a wishing well, but a well of promise. In particular, it is a promise of bringing waters to the womb and breaking those waters to deliver progeny. A well is a source of fecundity. It is from the waters of that well that the flock of sheep, that God’s flock of Israelites, though certainly not exclusively, are offered drink. However, in Jacob’s vision of the staircase to heaven, Jacob worried that it portended destruction and death. For he believed Esau was following him, intent on killing him in revenge for what he had stolen. A well is also a pit, that into which Joseph was thrown, that into which we are all tossed when we die. God in that sense is not only the source of life, but the deliverer of death and from death. When a hole lacks water, it is a pit. Which will it be?

In the Gospel according to John in chapter 4, Jesus was travelling north rather than east like Jacob. Outside the town of Sychar, he sat beside Jacob’s well. The story inverts the original. Jesus asked a woman to give him water from the well. She did, but wondered why he would ask a Samaritan girl? Was he proposing? Jesus then offered the Samaritan from whom he asked for a drink “living water.” The suggestion is that the water on offer had been dead, as dead as the water in the Dead Sea. It had become saline. Jesus was offering, not just to Jews, but now to everyone, to all human kind, “fresh water,” sweet rather than bitter water. The point is not to endorse the message of the Christian narrative as recorded by John, but to indicate and understand a well as a symbol.

The well is covered by a large stone. It will be moved by Jacob. It will be moved by Moses. They as founding fathers move the heavy stone that blocks access to the spirit of creativity, the spirit of procreation which itself is a structure constructed by humans. When a well runs dry, we find only dry bones and not the vital source of life. In Genesis, wells with water recur 25 times.

Wells are built by humans. Wells are accessed by human labour. Humans, as in the Moses tale, can also deny access to the well. In the Jacob story, to save the well from evaporation, the shepherds wait until all the flocks arrive and then remove the rock that covered the well. In the Moses story of the well, access was denied the Midianite women. Moses intervened to provide access. In the Jacob story, Jacob acts without the involvement of the other shepherds to move the stone and provide water for Rachel’s flock.

Why did Jacob do that? Why, when he saw Rachel, did he kiss her and break into tears upon meeting a relative he had never seen? Water flowed out from him instead of into him. It was tears of joy, of happiness. The serenity and unexpressed emotion of Abraham was now left behind. The reticence and passivity of Isaac had been left behind. In place we now have an openly emotional, and, as we soon learn, mentally scheming forefather who dramatically pushes the plot forward just as he intervened to move the stone.

Yesterday evening I went to hear jazz at Koerner Hall. The program featured the much younger Alfredo Rodríguez Trio in the first half and, in the second half, the brilliant jazz pianist, Danilo Pérez with Ben Street on bass & Danilo’s sister, Terri Lynne Carrington, on drums. It was a great performance, but it was akin to hearing the story of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven after one had read the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well as our initiation into one of the greatest love stories in literature.

In the second half, the music of Pérez truly soared up to the heavens and back down to earth, but after hearing the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio, it sounded like dinner music. For the Rodríguez trio was truly brilliant. It took us down into the well of creativity in cyclonic waves of poetic repetition. For Pérez is correct in his comments about jazz. It is global music. It is about freedom. It is about improvisation on repetitive themes.

The most powerful structural element in the biblical text is repetition. But also, the riffs on that repetition. The Torah in the literary world is the foundation of jazz in the world of music and it too plays on sounds, on words, on phrasing and on clauses, and translates the combination into stories. The ingenious variations in each are about identity and difference. The parallelisms challenge us to compare and reflect and to do so at various levels. Both literally and figuratively, Rodríguez took the audience down into the deep well of creativity in one of the greatest jazz performances I have ever heard. Sometimes it was just a fascinating variation on a very familiar tune, and, in the case of the last number the trio played, on a very simple melody from his childhood in Cuba.

I write only about the most haunting number. I believe, if I caught him correctly, it was called Yoruba. His CDs were all sold out when I went to buy one or two, so I had to look it up. I believe it is the one called, “Oye Afra Yoruba-Son,” but I will only know when I hear the song again. The number came from the deepest well of all. I would call it haunting jazz, in-depth ethnic jazz rather than global jazz. Hopefully, in a future blog when I hear the trio again, I myself will write with greater depth.

On a day that started with renewed life diving down to earth and feeding on prey on the ground, I was taken deeper into the ground, into wells of feeling and emotion rarely touched. With Yoruba I went back earlier before my ancestors in the Middle East to the Yoruba in West Africa whose music I happened to hear there. It had the same resonance captured in Rodríguez’ number and offered an older oral history deeper than the written word even if Rodríguez probably got his inspiration from Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba from descendants of African slaves brought to that island. Yoruba culture is based on divination and a search for wells, for the invisible beneath us as well as the invisible above us in the air. It developed as a culture of art and beauty rather than a culture which emphasized ethics and law, but one which both complements and haunts the latter.

In Rodríguez’ interpretation, it does do so by a kind of cyclonic activity that thrusts you down into a powerful inward circulation of notes and phrasing and repetitions that rotate, first downwards and finally upward so that one can once again breath freely. Hearing his music was like being thrust into a low-pressure chamber. He not only moved the stone from the top of the well, but dived down into it. And took the audience with him.

From peregrine falcons to cyclonic trips down wells – what could be better? Especially when you emerge unscathed and still breathing.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Aside – Embodiment

An Aside – Embodiment

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

I will return to the analysis of the frame for the Akedah story. But I must insert a side blog. This need is occasioned by two events. First, my daughter dropped in for an evening this past week on the way back from Israel to Boston. She was returning there to give a paper called “Wings of Desire: Theophany between the Cherubim and Mercy Seat” at the panel on Divine Embodiment at the Society of Bible Literature 2017 Conference. Rachel left me a copy of her paper for me to read.

The second impetus was seeing Samuel Tétreault’s “The 7 Figures” dance/circus troupe from Montreal perform “triptyque” at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. As Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage, wrote in his program notes: “When the body becomes the voice, the eyes learn to listen, and the head connects to the heart.” Marie Chouinard’s opening piece featuring an apparently crippled couple dance with twisted “crutches” was the most profound of these fascinating trio of choreographed works. In the second work, Victor Quijada had the whole troupe balancing in different ways on tall rods or canes rather than crutches with tiny platforms as the artists balanced between stillness and movement as they reached for the heavens and risked greater vulnerability. Sometimes they pulled together; at other times, they tore apart.

The most fascinating visually was Marcos Morau’s third piece, by far the longest, in which a hospital bed was the centrepiece, but a hospital bed that ended up floating in the air and then turning sideways to become a climbing wall. However, in this piece, we were gradually removed from the mundane, from the boredom of reality and the daily news about Donald Trump’s latest tripping over himself and his own words, and taken into a space where dream and reality meet, where vision and the ordinary of human life encounter one another. The artists stumble. They recover, whether on unicycles or using aerial straps, in their quest for freedom through escaping reality.

I should not omit the whimsical duo between the first and second performances to give time for a change in sets. Their short performance of Fred Astaire via Charlie Chaplin offered a brilliantly funny sight gag underwritten by a very serious commentary on play versus drudgery. As one of my fellows quoted in yesterday’s Torah study group, if something is done that you enjoy on Shabat, it is not work. But the same action treated as drudgery is halachically forbidden. Mopping a floor can be a delightful and inventive dance or a robotic and distressing exercise in drudgery.

I will return to the dance company. But first my daughter’s paper on the Mishkan as the place where the fascinans, the alluring and appealing aspects of the divine, meet “face-to-face” with the tremendum, the repulsive aspects of God. This is where revelation takes place at the encounter of the human and divine and the clash between the fascinans and the tremendum. It is another lesson in how the voice can be seen, the oral visualized, where danger and desire intertwine as God’s voice emerges from the midst of the fire to establish a divine presence.

God descends within a cloud in a moment of crisis in the tabernacle tale. In Morau’s dance/circus piece, the dancers ascend from a death bed. The cause of death is evidently watching shadows on the cave wall via TV; humans ascend to escape banality. When God descends in the Torah, it is to dwell in a vacuum, an empty space (a tokh), among and framed by the cherubim. That is the Heaven above the vault of the earth from which He speaks to set fire to earthly vanities.

God remains immanent. In Morau’s circus/dance, humans rise transcendent above the stage challenging the pull of gravity. But the latter, like the sacred text, is part of a “locomotor” rather than a “locative” thesis. Stasis does not stand at the centre of the universe. Change does. We are not intended to be couch potatoes sitting on our hospital beds slowly dying, but doers and shakers. Worship is not centred in the sacred temple, but in the arc of the covenant that moves even in the diaspora, with the people. God sits upon the seat of mercy. But it is a place of danger, a place of risk into which no one can go, except in the ancient world the High Priest, and even then, only once a year on Yom Kippur. God sits upon a “couch” of mystery rather than banality.

The dancers/circus performers in the triptych provide a mirror for that sacred space through men and women rising to challenge nature’s gravity. They can do so even if crippled. They may be constrained by bent limbs and twisted appendages, but, despite such constraints, they express the voice of freedom in the movement of their flesh and bones.

Chouinard’s piece takes off where the binding of Isaac ends. One dancer is hung all bound up in mid air. Her partner comes to her rescue and carefully, deliberately, slowly, unbinds her. He came to her on crutches. And she rises like a newborn calf, unsteady on her legs and herself needing the aid of deformed wooden appendages. While the tribe descended from the people of the book obtain their “breakthroughs” via restraint and constraint, in the first dance/circus piece influenced by the Japanese Kinbaku art of bondage, restraint is refined into an aesthetic. That which initially appears ugly and abnormal becomes a thing of beauty.

Are the ropes cut, are the chains which bind us smashed? Or are they carefully and systematically unwound and then transformed into a way of freedom as in the dance performance? Does a woman lay on railway tracks totally tied up waiting to be rescued by the heroic male before the train runs over her as we left the movie theatre as kids waiting a week for the next episode. Or is she rescued, not from the danger of a seaming monster, but from her own constraints and limitations, and then allowed to move and prance, to swing and dance? The rope becomes part of an erotic means of rising from the dead in a dream or oneiric state rather than, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, like the penis in western culture, crashing down in a flabby mess, collapsing, wasted and diminished and no longer with a voice.

This artistic expression becomes much more pronounced in the third choreographed piece by Marcos Morau’s oneiric rope performances when the dancers bind themselves to rise to the heavens. The binding itself is not meant to constrain by ropes ineptly wound around them, but by ropes aesthetically twisted so that the constraints themselves become integral parts of their bodies as they dance in mid-air. The Kazami-Ryu strappado suspension becomes a thing of awe and wonder as we delight in the relaxation rather than tension enabled by the skill of the performers. It is not as if we were watching human artists portrayed as divine or semi-divine beings, as in Superman or Wonder Woman, but rather the emphasis is on the effort to raise and transform the human form into its highest heavenly presence. Thus, though clearly influenced by Japanese art and bodily performance, the choreography remains within the Western aniconic tradition that rejects the portrayal of deities in a bodily form.

But the Western tradition is one preoccupied with sin and failure and the need for atonement. In the choreography we saw last evening, constraints and limits are simply part of the natural world, part of our collective birthright, and we escape from sin, not by browbeating ourselves, not by thumping on our chests in remorse, but by using gravity itself to rise above the world, to become a force of nature oneself. We can stand upside down, balanced on small poles with a relatively miniscule platform. Last evening offered a remarkable demonstration of how natural forces can be balanced and held still, not simply to balance upside down on one’s hands, but to project oneself sideways with only the pole and the tiny platform for support.

In the biblical text, the Israelites are punished for idolatry, for worshiping a calf made of solid gold. One might transform that weighty object into gold leaf in the Mishkan. Last evening, the performers left the inert metal behind and opted for a life in empty space. Yesterday morning, the silver ornaments and velvet cover were removed from the Torah scroll I held to allow and encourage an encounter between the divine and the human through reading of words. In the performance yesterday evening, there is neither a dependence nor an expectation of any divine intercession. It was not about God only helping those who help themselves, but demonstrating how a tribe could help one another and rise into the heavens. In the Hebrew Bible, God descends. Humans only walk and climb to the tops of mountains. But that is where pagan gods lived. The God of the Hebrews did not live in a single space. In the performances last evening, humans could not be confined to our normal spatial range, but could strive and soar as apparently effortless as birds without any divine being hovering above and without any net below to catch them when and if they fall.

On Saturday morning at synagogue I was “chosen” and rewarded with the honour of carrying one of the sacred scrolls. In the evening I was carried away by rising, turning, bending and twisting to try to rise above the pull of mediocrity. It was an evening in which I could listen with my eyes and my head could move closer to the seat of mercy, the heart, vicariously by a very different route. In the morning, God was not present but experienced as an absence. In the evening, God was absent; humans rose to fill the heavenly space.

Will that path through the beauty and magical performance of the body have its own hubris even as it attempts to balance centrifugal and centripetal forces to somewhat overcome the pull of gravity? In that vision, do we pull ourselves upwards by out own bootstraps or our own canes? We are uplifted by beauty instead of raised up by a commitment to the written word, to law and ethics.