Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

EARLY MORNING MUSINGS


In the past week or more, a number of you have posted interesting and suggestive comments on this blog, to which I have not yet responded.  I hope to do so before I leave for Paris on January 6th.  This morning during my walk [40 degrees -- quite comfortable], I turned over in my mind what I might say.  For some reason, I found myself recalling what I had written in the first volume of my Autobiography about my fruitful engagement with the Critique of Pure Reason.  It occurred to me that I had neglected to talk about one of the most important motivating convictions of that effort, and though it is very far indeed from any of your comments, I shall take a few moments to return to that pivotal moment in my intellectual development and try to capture on paper my thoughts from the late Fall months of 1959, when I was preparing the notes that served first as the basis of my lectures in Philosophy 130 at Harvard and then as the skeleton of my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.

The philosophers among you [of whom, I believe, there are a goodly number] will know that in the most important section of the Critique, the Transcendental Analytic, the pivotal notion  is synthesis.  It is a priori synthesis, Kant claims, that explains both the unity of consciousness and the objective validity of the laws of nature.  Synthesis, Kant tells us, is an activity of the mind.  It is, in his words, a "running through and holding together" of the elements of a manifold of intuition, whether empirical or pure.  [Wow!  Just writing those words takes me back.  I hope they are not utterly incomprehensible to my readers.]

All of the commentators before me simply took Kant's characterization of synthesis at face value and then launched into elaborate scholarly disquisitions on the distinction between pure and empirical synthesis or the relation of schematized to unschematized categories [never mind.]  But I was completely unsatisfied by their extremely knowledgeable discussions, replete with citations of passages from Kant's many other writings, published and unpublished, including even the Nachlass, the barrel of scraps of paper left at his death.  I did not want to know every variant of Kant's use of the term "synthesis."  I wanted to know what on earth the term meant.  Until I could explain that to myself, the Critique would be a complete mystery to me.

Now, "running through and holding together" is not a description of a mental activity.  It is a metaphor [which, in my quirky mind, conjures up Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through The Tulips."]  And I was unwilling to move forward a single step so long as this central term was explained merely metaphorically.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important this refusal was in my grappling with the Critique.  It is, indeed, the key to every bit of textual interpretation I have ever attempted, whether it be an interpretation of the works of Kant, or those of Hume, of Marx, or indeed [to descend out of the stratosphere] of Rawls.  We are often enraptured or mystified by the complexity of a philosopher's theoretical elaborations, so much so that we spend our time unraveling that complexity, without pausing long enough to make sure that we fully understand the central terms that the philosopher deploys.  A metaphor is a promissory note, and unless we can cash it in for a plain, literal translation, it is valueless.

So I went looking in the Critique for some clue to the precise nature of this activity on which Kant grounded his entire philosophical enterprise.  I found my answer, as the handful of you who have read my book will know, in a section of the Critique usually referred to by scholars as the "Subjective Deduction."   This is a portion of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding.  Here at last I found a non-metaphorical description of the mental activity of synthesis.  [Indeed, in typical Immanuel Kant fashion, one finds not one but three related activities, to which he gives separate names -- "the synthesis of apprehension in intuition," "the synthesis of reproduction in imagination," and "the synthesis of recognition in a concept."  Never mind what all of this means.  I just find it soothing to say these old words to myself again, rather like a devout Catholic saying the Lord's Prayer or a little child lying in bed at night saying to herself "Once upon a time ..."]

There was just one small problem with my discovery.  When Kant came to issue a Second Edition of the Critique in 1787, six years after the publication of the First Edition, he revised or entirely rewrote certain sections of the book, including the Deduction.  And in the Second Edition Deduction the Three-Fold Synthesis totally disappeared, never to be seen again in any of Kant's subsequent writings!  Well, that posed a bit of a problem, to put mildly.  If Kant deleted the so-called Subjective Deduction from the Second [presumably authoritative] Edition, how on earth can I possibly make an idea found only in that passage the key to my entire interpretation of Kant's philosophy?

My answer is simple, and utterly unconventional.  The importance of a great philosophical work, I have always believed, lies not in its architectonic elaboration or the fretwork of its superficial detail but in the power and depth of its central insight.  A truly valuable interpretation will grasp that insight and struggle to make it perfectly clear and coherent, even if doing so requires ignoring or even contradicting some of the statements that the philosopher makes about what he or she is doing and what he or she believes is important in the work.  Now, clearly it is a matter of philosophical judgment what is and what is not the central insight of a work.  Hence, if I may steal a turn of phrase from the French, all good textual interpretations are guilty.

A powerful interpretation [what, in another context, Harold Bloom might call a strong reading] of a text will present the reader with a clear, non-metaphorical, simple, and -- dare I say it, beautiful -- reading of that text that seizes what is centrally important in the text and ruthlessly ignores everything else.  Those of us who undertake such interpretations make a gamble, when we begin, on a text, betting our time and effort and commitment that the text, if wrestled with all night like Jacob with the Angel, will yield up such a reading.

Well, that, more or less, is what I was thinking about this morning during my walk.  No herons, by the way, nor deer.  But as I approached home, I did see a hawk in a tree.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

THANK YOU ONE AND ALL

It has been a grand eightieth birthday, and I want to thank all of you who sent birthday greetings and wishes -- Marinus Ferreira, Jerry Fresia, Tim, GT Christie, Chris, Nick, Turkle, Lounger, Levinebar, Matt, Chris [a different one, I am pretty sure], Magpie, and my old student Andrew Lionel Blais.  Thank you also to the many folks who sent me emails and even e-cards, to whom I have responded by email.

My mind has been so taken up with the impending birthday that I have neglected to ask what I will concentrate on once the day is passed, as it now is.  My walk this morning was devoted to thinking about that question, and later today [after I have gone to the local Time Warner Cable office to correct some obscure problem with my cable box] I shall try to put my thoughts in order.

This blog has become a grand endless seminar, with participants entering and leaving at will and returning yet again, a Symposium [without the sex, of course].  I think of it as continuous with my fifty years of active university teaching, a way to pass on what was passed on to me by Harry Austryn Wolfson and Willard van Orman Quine and Clarence Irving Lewis and Sam Beer and Raphael Demos and all my other teachers sixty years ago and more. 

In the greatest statement ever penned of the conservative sensibility, Edmund Burke described the state as "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."  I may reject Burke's celebration of the state, but I embrace his conception of the relationship each of us has to what has gone before and what is yet to come.  When I take a student through the exercise of writing a page a day of her doctoral dissertation, I still can see in my mind's eye the gentle rebuke that C. I. Lewis penned in the margin of the paper I wrote for him on Hume sixty two years ago:  "I would hope it is not an evidence of that temper in philosophy that can offer the objection to everything and advance the solution to nothing."

Friday, December 27, 2013

FOUR SCORE


On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the first of what would be four terms as President of the United States.  Several weeks later I was conceived and forty weeks or so after that, on December 27, 1933, I was born.  Today is thus my eightieth birthday, a milestone of no importance whatsoever to the world at large but deserving of some commemoration on this blog.

I have lived through all four presidential terms of Roosevelt, as well as those of Harry S. Truman, Dwight David Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Milhous Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. [born Leslie Lynch King, Jr.], James Earl Carter, Ronald Wilson Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, William Jefferson Clinton, George Walker Bush, and Barack Hussein Obama. 

I have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Viet Nam War, Watergate, the disgrace and resignation of Nixon, the Reagan reaction, the Clinton triangulation, the Bush disaster, 9-11, the Afghanistan War, both Iraq Wars, the crash of 2009, and the Obama victories.  I have lived through the Moscow Show Trials, the Spanish Civil War, the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement, the Green Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the Tea Party excrescence.

I first heard Elvis Presley on a radio in the barracks in Fort Dix; I watched Sputnik soar overhead at five a.m. while standing on the parade ground; I saw the Beatles' Hard Day's Night in a theater off Trafalgar Square.  I have debated nuclear policy with Herman Kahn in Boston, and taken tea with Bertrand Russell in Surrey.  I have had an honorary degree conferred on me at the University of the Western Cape by Desmond Tutu.

During a career lasting half a century, I taught university courses in Philosophy, History, Political Science, Economics, and Afro-American Studies, and more than five thousand young men and women passed through my classes.  I have written or edited more than thirty books, twenty-one of which have been published in the old-fashioned way, the rest as e-books online, and my books have appeared in translation in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Catalan, Greek, Croatian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian.  The English language versions of my books have sold over one million copies, but if I am remembered at all after I die, it will be for an eighty page essay I wrote in 1965 for enough money to cover a month of psychoanalyst's bills, and published in 1970 as a slender volume called in Defense of Anarchism. 

I have been married twice, the first time for twenty-three years to Cynthia Griffin, the second time for twenty-six years and counting to Susan Shaeffer Gould.  I have fathered two sons, one a brilliant Chess Grandmaster and Hedge Fund manager, the other a renowned legal scholar and the leading gay rights legal theorist in America.  My first son has given me two grandchildren, Samuel Emerson and Athena Emily.

I have undergone general anaesthesia thirteen times --first at the age of four weeks, most recently two years ago, and yet, withal, I am healthy and vigorous, walking four miles every morning summer and winter. With luck, I shall see ninety.  With great good fortune, I shall join the select company of the new centenarians.

I have visited South Africa more than thirty times and have raised enough money to enable sixteen hundred young Black men and women to attend historically Black universities in that beautiful land.  This is my onion, as Grushenka would say, and if I can remember not to kick, it may serve to pull me out of Purgatory.  I was arrested once, in an anti-apartheid demonstration at Harvard, but no merit attaches to that, for I did it mostly to win favor with my teenage sons.

I have seen Lawrence Olivier, Jose Ferrar, John Guilgud, Margaret Leighton, Siobhan McKenna, Jason Robards, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwick, Edith Evans, and Charles Boyer live on stage, and I have appeared in the pit chorus of a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy.  As a boy I sang madrigals; as a man I have played the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  Though those who know me now would not credit it, I was a pretty fair social dancer back in the forties and early fifties.  I have watched two lions copulating in Botswana and was faced down by an irritated mother elephant in South Africa.  I have buried three cats and a standard poodle, with sorrow and regret.

In eighty years I have learned that socialism will not come to America in my lifetime, but that the arguments for it are no less strong now than when I was a boy.  I have learned that it is harder to change the world in one small way than it is to think about changing the world in many large ways.  I have learned that friendship is more important than ideology, and that comradeship, not a priori reasoning, is the foundation of moral choice.

In the beautiful words of Erik H. Erikson, An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history.  It was given to me to pursue the cycle of my life in this segment of history.  It has been neither the best of times nor the worst of times, but it has been my time.

 

 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE?


As often happens when I am particularly distressed by the seeming fruitlessness of ideological critique from the left [how bad have things become when I find that I must hope that Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016?], I pulled my copy  of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man off the shelf.  I was looking for a passage I recalled in the Introduction.  Here it is.  Those of you who have copies of the book will find it on page xiii.

"In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thus thrown back to a high level of abstraction.  There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action, meet.  Even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation, and commitment to them a matter of personal (or group) preference.

"And yet:  does this absence refute the theory?  In the face of apparently contradictory facts, the critical analysis continues to insist that the need for qualitative change is as pressing as ever before.  Needed by whom?  The answer continues to be the same:  by the society as a whole, for every one of its members.  The union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope, and fear to the decisions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth constitute the most impartial indictment -- even if they are not the raison d'être of this society but only its by-product:  its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.

"The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible.  The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest is still meaningful."

This passage is Marcuse's apology, as it were, for the abstractness of the book.  It is also, I think,  a profound observation on the real relationship between ideological theory and revolutionary practice.  Despite being a German intellectual with impeccable credentials as a theorist in the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, Marcuse recognized that his theorizing, if it were to be effective, must rest on, and draw its strength from, working class movements and organizations.  In their absence, as he so poignantly puts it, his analysis must seem unrealistic speculation, and his commitment to historical alternatives "a matter of personal preference."

Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man in 1964, just before the anti-war student movement erupted here and abroad into what, at the time, seemed a world-historical conflagration.  I recall thinking, "Well, Herbert missed the revolution by about six months."  Now, with half a century of hindsight, I can see that his diagnosis was right on the mark.  I have had great hopes for the Occupy Wall Street eruption, and certainly its instincts were correct about the source of our troubles.  But lacking any sort of organizational and institutional structure, that healthy outpouring of energy left little of permanence on which to build.

I remain convinced that Reagan's successful attack on labor unions was crucially important in the evisceration of serious radical protest.  Important, too, of course was the decades-long outsourcing of good working class jobs, which, as LFC noted in a recent comment, helps to explain the precipitous decline in working class wages over the past thirty years.

I share Marcuse's belief that the work of intellectuals on the left has some value, even though it is not, and cannot be, the engine for social change.  When I had tea with Bertrand Russell in 1954, he said that if he had it to do over, he would have gone into physics rather than philosophy.  I cannot honestly say that if I had it to do over, I would have become a union organizer rather than an academic.  But I devoutly hope that someone out there is making that choice.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

ON A HAPPIER NOTE

As Susie and I prepare for our four week trip to Paris, early in the new year, I have printed out a recipe for "joues de porc," which is to say pork cheeks.  This is my favorite dish at Le Petit Pontoise, a wonderful little restaurant three blocks from our apartment on rue Pontoise.    A while back, I asked my local Whole Foods butcher whether I could get pork cheeks and he looked at me as though I were mad, but in Paris, I shall have no difficulty at all.   If this works, it will make a nice addition to my small list of tested recipes, which at this point includes, among other things, five spices cuisses de canards, grilled quail, dorade royale [a lovely white fish], steamed endives [a Jacques Pepin recipe], and of course, boeuf bourguignon.  If the world insists on going to hell as I age, at least I can eat well.

DEPRESSING THOUGHTS ON CHRISTMAS DAY

No deep thoughts while walking this morning.  It was 26 degrees and all I could do to keep from freezing up solid.  But when I got home, I surfed the web idly and came on this by Joseph Stiglitz, one of the Nobel Economics Committee's few defensible choices.  I leave it to you to read the entire column.  For me, the most depressing statistic [among many] was the fact that "census data reveals that [American] men with high-school diplomas but without college degrees earn about 40 percent less today (in real terms) than they did in the 1970s."  Note:  this is an enormous absolute loss of real income, not a relatively smaller share of a steadily growing pie. 

Perhaps it is the fact that this is Christmas Day, always a down time for me;  perhaps it is the fact that I am forty-eight hours away from my eightieth birthday.  Somehow, Stiglitz's column just made me feel terribly disheartened.  Not angry, not mobilized to act, just disheartened.   Forty percent LESS than almost half a century ago.  As Stiglitz makes clear, a significant portion of the blame for this disastrous savaging of the American working class falls on the deliberate policies adopted by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.  Obama is no better than Clinton, who was not better than Bush or his son, and a Hillary Clinton administration will be no different. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

LITERARY CRITICAL REFLECTIONS ON CHRISTMAS EVE


This morning, while I was having my daily lemon poppyseed muffin and coffee at the Cafe Carolina, I idly glanced through the Arts section of the TIMES, the Tuesday crossword and Ken Ken puzzles requiring very little time, as usual.  I happened on a story about John Goldwyn, grandson of the legendary Samuel Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame, who is trying to make a comeback as a movie producer with the just released The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  I have seen previews of the movie, a fifty million dollar spectacular, starring the always egregious Ben Stiller.  My first reaction to the previews was a silent "Oh, no!  That is all wrong!"

Anyway, the TIMES piece got me thinking about the larger question of the appropriateness of adaptations and modernizations of classic literary works.   You know the sort of thing I mean:  King Lear set in 1930's Weimar Germany, Romeo and Juliet as a musical about New York gangs.  Sometimes these work exceedingly well.  West Side Story is, for my money, a completely legitimate take on the Shakespeare play.  Sometimes these adaptations are disasters.  Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson are so completely wrong that their version of the great Conan Doyle characters struck me as a deliberate piece of camp [and a bad piece at that.]

The problem, as I see it, is this:  a great author integrates the characters and plot lines so perfectly with the social, legal, political, and cultural milieu in which the story is set that the two cannot be disambiguated.  Pride and Prejudice is set in a world in which property and marriage and family connection are inseparable.  Darcy's hesitations about marrying a daughter of the Bennett family makes no sense if the story is transported to 1990's San Francisco.  Richard III is incomprehensible if Richard is figured as a New York corporate executive.  The motivations of the characters, the constraints on their choices, the tragedy of their situation are all inseparable from the social world they inhabit.

Now, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a delightful James Thurber short story about a meek little man -- a Casper Milquetoast, if I may show my age -- who carves out a tiny interior space in his imagination into which he can retreat from his overbearing wife [A Thurber standard] for fleeting moments of satisfying fantasy.  One of his little flights of fancy, for example, takes place in the brief time that he sits in his car at a traffic light, waiting for the red to turn to green.  To render this fiction cinematically by a series of dramatic, expensive special effects episodes completely loses the charm of the original story [you will notice that I say this confidently despite having not seen the picture.]  As for the casting of Ben Stiller, words fail me.  Walter Mitty is not a mugging self-referential clown.  Far from it.  Kevin Kline might be able to carry it off, but not Ben Stiller.

If I may recur to Aristotle -- always a permissible move for a philosopher -- the great writers succeed in finding the universal in the particular.  They do not write the universal and then arbitrarily set it in some particular to which it bears no intrinsic relation.

Very much the same thing is true of great composers, I believe [although here I suspect I will get a strong argument from some performers as well as from some composers.]  The original pianoforte [soft-loud -- rather like the pushmepullyou in Dr. Doolittle] is very different from the modern concert grand.  It makes a different sound.  When Mozart wrote for the pianoforte -- I am convinced -- he did not write for some ideal perfect piano which, alas for him, the available pianoforte only imperfectly instantiated.  He wrote for the existing instrument.  Had someone made a modern concert grand available to him, mirabile dictu, he would have written different music.  That is why not even the immortal Glenn Gould was able, on a piano, to play harpsichord music as it was meant to be played.

Well, as I say, I have not seen the movie.  I am still trying to find the time to see The desolation of Smaug.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

MUST READ

My old friend, Enver Motala, has just sent to me a lengthy document adopted by a meeting of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa [NUMSA].   I have archived it as a pdf file at box.net, accessible via the link at the top of this page.  I very strongly urge you to read it.  This is what real worker thinking and action looks like.  I weep at the realization that there is no organization in the entire United States capable of producing a document of this sort about America.  Note, by the way, that the South African Communist Party [SACP] is now hand in glove with the ruling ANC against the interests of the workers.

FILM ECHOES

One of the most enjoyable pastimes of dedicated film buffs is finding deliberate directorial echoes, moments in which one director frames a scene or a bit of action as a kind of silent homage to an earlier work.  Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I were idly watching a television screening of The Wizard of Oz when I saw just such a moment.  I am going to assume that everyone has seen both The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Recall that after Dorothy has been captured by the Wicked Witch of the West [Margaret Hamilton, who was, believe it or not, only 37 when she played that memorable dual role], Toto escapes and leads the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion back to the Witch's castle to rescue Dorothy.  The three distinctly trepid saviors clamber over some patently fake rocks and finally crouch behind an escarpment, peering over at the entrance to the castle as the Witch's mock-fearsome troops march in and out, singing as they go. 

As I saw that scene for the hundredth time, I suddenly recalled the genuinely scary scene from The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo, Sam, and the gollum crouch on a high cliff and watch Sauron's very scary Ork forces marching through the large gate into Mordor.   As soon as I made the connection, it was obvious that Peter Jackson had made a conscious allusion to the iconic Wizard.

I invite my faithful viewers to tell us their favorite examples of cinematic allusions.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

WINTER SOLSTICE

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  I saw a hawk this morning as I walked.  Even though it has been unusually warm, even for North Carolina, I have a primal desire to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed.  Indeed, it was almost six before I got up, dressed, and went walking.  I find this time of year depressing in general -- too many days without mail, without the regular affairs of the world to distract me.  This year is a bit harder, because my eightieth birthday approaches.  Exactly six months from now, we shall be in Paris for fete de la musique on the longest day of the year.  That is a very much more cheerful time.

Next week I shall play Mozart's great violin/viola duet, K423, with a violinist I found listed in the Amateur Chamber Music Players' membership catalogue.  The ACMP is a world-wide organization of amateur musicians who enjoy playing chamber music.  One is required to self-evaluate one's skills and list oneself as Professional, A, B, C, or D in skill [with pluses and minuses, to boot.]  I chose to list myself as Viola B, which is certainly not an undervaluing of my skills.  I have been practicing K423 for days.  My secret hope is that I do reasonably well when we play and that she in turn talks it about in the Triangle musical world that I am OK violist, thereby perhaps making it possible for me to get into a regular quartet.  A bit like an old-fashioned version of Internet dating.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

WHAT IT IS TO BE A TEACHER

Several e-mail responses to my "small triumph" post yesterday expressed distress at the lack of real mentoring these days in the Academy.  As I was taking my walk this morning at 6:30 [a lovely full moon hanging low in the western sky], I thought back to my first year as a senior member of the Columbia Philosophy Department, forty-nine years ago.  The department at that time was like a three generation family party.  There were the old wise men, at or near retirement -- Ernest Nagel, John Herman Randall, Horace Friess, and James Gutman -- the grownups -- Justus Buchler, Bob Cumming, Albert Hofstadter, Charles Frankel -- and the kids -- Sidney Morgenbesser, Richard Kuhn, Richard Taylor, Arthur Danto, James Walsh, Charles Parsons, and myself.  I had been told when I was hired that my "teaching load would be two and two" -- academic shorthand for a responsibility of teaching two courses each semester.  But the old men in the department, all of whom had come up in the Great Depression, had no conception of a teaching load.  They were simply teachers, and when students wanted to learn something they taught it, whether that meant teaching two courses a semester or five.  The year I arrived, Randall, Friess, and Gutman were teaching a seminar on something or other, joined by Frank Tannenbaum, a distinguished historian.  They asked whether I would like to join them and I said sure.  The seminar, if you can call it that, was a hoot.  We sat in a room with maybe fifteen graduate students from all over the university and talked about whatever the students were interested in.  There was no sense of "fields," or "specialties."  We were all just teachers.  There were some delicious moments.  Every so often, for example, Jimmy and Horace would have a disagreement, and like as not Jimmy would say, "Horace, I seem to remember you took a different view of that question in 1937."  Then Jack and Frank would try to recall whether Jimmy was right.  I was thirty at the time, and I felt really privileged to be allowed to take part, sort of like being permitted to join in the conversation as a kid when my parents had friends over of an evening.  I never forgot that window on an earlier time, when teachers taught, not counting credits or teaching loads or contact hours.

In the Spring of 2000, I was a Professor of Afro-American Studies at UMass and Graduate Program Director of our new doctoral program.  None of our graduate students knew anything about Marx, so I decided to teach them.  I announced a series of evening classes on Marx and about seventeen students showed up -- almost all of our doctoral students at that point.  We met for as many weeks as it took for me to give them the elements of Marx's thought, and to their credit, these overworked students all stuck it out.  There was one wonderful moment, but a little background is required.  At that time, not a single member of the department had anything that could by the wildest stretch of the imagination be called a religious belief, but at least half of our students were serious Christians of one sort or another.  [When you called Chris Lehman on the phone, for example, if he wasn't in, you got blessed three times before the beep.]  Anyway, I was lecturing on Marx's early views one rainy evening, and a propos of I know not what, I remarked in an  off-hand fashion, "Of course, there is no God."  Just at the moment, there was a tremendous clap of thunder.  I did not know it at the time, but I later learned that a number of students took it as a sign.

RESPONSE TO A COMMENT

I was just checking the comments, as I do every day, and found a very troubling comment on an old August post by "Theceltiberian" [??] about Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis.  He [she, they] says that they have turned very much to the right in recent years.  Can that be true?  Does anyone know?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A SMALL TRIUMPH

More than six months ago, I met with a bright young UNC Philosophy graduate student who had worked as my research assistant on several book projects.  She was ready to start writing her dissertation, but was rather daunted by the prospect, as many graduate students are when they become "ABD."  I offered her the following deal:  If she would write one page, or perhaps two, of her dissertation every single day, and send me what she had written that day as an email attachment, I would read it immediately and send back comments on the same day [or early the next morning.]  She agreed, went home, and that night wrote page one of the dissertation.  Every single day since then she has sent me a page or two and I have read it, save for a break this Fall when she had to do the elaborate preparation the Philosophy Department requires of those going on the job market.

Yesterday she sent me the last two pages of the final chapter.  She now has a complete draft of the dissertation, just as I promised she would.  There will be revisions, of course, but it is a certainty that she will receive the doctorate.

This is the fourth time I have done this with  a student -- the first  three with Afro-American Studies doctoral students at the University of Massachusetts.  This is her triumph, not mine.  After all, I did not write a word of the dissertation.  But I take a certain pride in the accomplishment none the less.

Monday, December 16, 2013

REFLECTIONS ON ENVER MOTALA'S ESSAY -- PART TWO


Now we come to what I find especially interesting in all of this.  The South African educational system, even after Liberation, offers nothing remotely resembling the structure of "second chances" that are provided to Americans by Community Colleges, Extension Programs, and other ways of accumulating tertiary education credits that can be applied toward a tertiary degree.  In America, a young man or woman who does poorly in high school and has made little or no effort to continue on to college can take college level courses at a local Community College.  If he or she does well, those credits can then be transferred to a nearby campus of the State College system, and those credits in turn can be carried over to a branch of the State university.  All of this is out of the question in South Africa.

But South Africa is full of able, intelligent Black men and women who have learned a great deal of real value on the job or in life, as we like to say.  Let me give just one example.  The largest of the Townships contain hundreds of thousands of residents -- Wikipedia gives the population  of Soweto as more than 850,000.  Under the apartheid regime, the national government did very little in the way of internal management of these huge urban populations, and informal, unacknowledged, unofficial governments sprang up that provided internal policing and other city functions.  The Black men and women who performed these functions did not have university degrees in Political Science, but they knew how to run a big city.  So those engaged in educating and training township residents or union members, like Enver, seized on the existing educational theories of alternative education and formal credentialing of practical knowledge, arguing that so long as the society demanded educational credentials for the best jobs, the non-white men and women who had over many years acquired demonstrable skills should receive credentialed recognition of that fact.

At the same time, Enver and others began to elaborate on the old argument about the destructive consequences of the separation of "head work" from "hand work."  We are all familiar with that distinction.  In the United States, it is sometimes described as the distinction between White Collar jobs and Blue Collar jobs, or between "suits" and "shirts," or between working class and middle class.  There is a long tradition in European and American radical educational circles of challenging the legitimacy of that distinction as not intellectually or educationally grounded, and as serving primarily to enforce and rigidify social and economic class divisions.

When I first arrived in South Africa in 1986, before Liberation, I was enchanted to discover that in that politically enslaved country these ideas were alive and well, while in supposedly liberated America, they were all but dead.  This was one of the reasons that I fell in love with South Africa and committed my time and energy to the struggle for liberation both there and here in America.  This is a long and very sad story, but the short of it is that after Liberation, few if any significant changes were made in the South African tertiary educational sector.  There was a years-long hullaballoo about "transformation," but aside from some mergers and reshufflings at the administrative level, the hide-bound old-fashioned rigid educational system continued.  The only difference was in the shades of color of the faces of the students.

My experiences in South Africa forced me to reexamine my assumptions about American higher education.  As my one book length discussion of the subject [The Ideal of the University, 1969] makes clear, the early part of my long career was spent in the elite, privileged private sector of American higher education.  I taught at Harvard, at Chicago, at Columbia.  When I moved to the University of Massachusetts in 1971, I thought of myself as going into the belly of the beast, but of course UMass is itself part of the elite sector of higher ed.  Wikipedia says that there are 2774 four year degree granting educational institutions in America.  UMass is surely among the top three or four hundred, and perhaps among the top two hundred.  So in leaving Columbia for UMass, I was, so to speak, going from a gated community to an upper-middle class suburb.

But that of course does not begin to capture the reality of American society.  Only slightly more than thirty percent of Americans over the age of 25 have earned the B.A. or its equivalent.  It is important to pause for a moment to reflect on the significance of that statistic.  Seventy per cent of the adults in this country are simply ineligible for almost every decent job because they lack the appropriate educational credentials.

To be sure, you need a college degree to be a professor, a doctor, or a lawyer.  Indeed, you need several.  But you also need a college degree to be a high school teacher, to be an elementary school teacher, to get into a corporate management training program, to work for a business consulting firm, to be an architect, a Registered Nurse, an FBI agent, to have any hope of working for a non-profit.  If the Walmart website is to be believed, your chances of becoming a Walmart store manager without a college degree are minimal.  So seventy percent of Americans can kiss all of those jobs goodbye.   

Since virtually everyone who talks or writes about education and the American economy is in that thirty percent -- and most are in the very much tinier segment of graduates of top colleges and universities [counting UMass and its equivalents as part of the "top"], the talk is all about how hard it is to get into the elite handful of Ivy League schools and their equivalents, as though that were the only question worth discussing.  Save when the conversation turns to African-Americans and Latinos, no one really acknowledges that most Americans do not have college degrees.  Now, to be sure, a larger share of each age cohort gets some post-secondary education.  After all, those 2774 four-year schools manage, on average, to graduate within six years only about 55% of the students who enroll.  But the fact remains that even now, not having a college degree is the norm.  By the way, when I was an undergraduate, only about six or seven percent of Americans had a college degree!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

REFLECTIONS ON ENVER MOTALA'S ESSAY --- PART ONE


There is so much to say about Enver Motala's essay that I am somewhat at a loss to know where to begin.  I have, over the years, written a great deal about education both here in the United States and in South Africa.  I shall draw on some of that body of material in this discussion, which, now that I am started, strikes me as likely to last more than a single day.  From time to time I shall even incorporate passages from those writings into this extended essay.  I suppose I think of myself as being somewhat like the composers of the baroque or classical period who did not hesitate to borrow from themselves.

Let me start by telling you a bit about the context within which Enver has spent his life working.  South Africa in the apartheid era had an extremely rigid and traditional educational system at every level from elementary to higher education.  As you can imagine, the schools were rigidly segregated, not simply into white and non-white systems, but into White, African, Indian, and Coloured systems mirroring the geographic and residential segregation of the nation.  The Indian people are the descendants of workers brought from India to labor in the sugar fields of Natal Province on the eastern side of the country.  The Coloured people, who speak Afrikaans, not English, as their native language, are the mixed race descendants of Dutch settlers and Malay and African residents of the Western Cape section of the country.  When the Boer government implemented the theory and practice of apartheid, or "separateness." the non-white peoples were forced to relocate in areas designated for them, with the African majority population being forcibly separated into ten or more groupings according to their native languages.  The white population depended on the labor of non-whites, but at the same time did not permit them to live within the cities where their labor was required.  Thus grew up the institution of racially segregated townships just outside the White cities where African, Indian, or Coloured families could stay when their work day was done.  [The so-called influx control laws and pass laws forbade non-whites from saying in the cities after sundown, so early each morning hundreds of thousands of Black men and women would begin the long trip by train or bus into the cities to work and then retrace their steps each evening.]  The best known township is the African township Soweto [ = SOuth WEst TOwnship].

 

The educational systems were organized along the same racial lines, with elementary and secondary schools for Whites only, Africans only, Indians only, and Coloureds only.  Although the official ruling ideology originally denied that non-Whites were capable of higher education, eventually the economy developed to the point at which there was a need for non-White workers trained even beyond secondary schooling, and so in addition to the Afrikaans-language and English language universities that were established by Whites and which flourished, a series of universities came into existence specifically to educate non-Whites.  The oldest such university, Fort Hare, is the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and many other South African and Southern African political leaders.  The University of Durban-Westville was established to educate Indian students, the University of the Western Cape was founded to educate Coloured students, and several universities in addition to Fort Hare were founded to educate African students, among them the University of Zululand, Transkei University, and the University of the North.

The education in the universities was a mixture of British and Continental traditions, in both cases extremely hidebound, with year-long courses graded with a single end of year examination, and virtually no possibility of partial credit for the work done during the year.  There was also no way to transfer credits from one institution to another, not even, say, from The University of the Witwatersrand to Cape Town University, the two leading English language universities in the country.  All of the good jobs were reserved for whites, of course, and typically required university degrees.  Virtually the only fellowship support came from the mining companies, which offered bursaries to undergraduates who were willing to commit to working for the companies after they earned their degrees.

Even to be eligible to apply for admission to a university -- any university -- required a performance of a certain level and nature on the school leaving exams called by everyone "matrics".   All of the universities are state funded, and if one of them chose to admit a student who had not "earned a matric" the university would not receive state support for that student in the funding formula used to calculate how much each university received each year.  Each racial group took a separate set of matric exams, and the exams administered for the small group of African students who actually took them were often graded in a haphazard and irrational fashion.  Roughly two percent of each African age cohort "earned a matric."  This does not mean that two percent of each year's Black eighteen year olds went to university.  It means that only two percent were even eligible to go to university.  When Jakes Gerwel, the first Coulored Rector of the University of the Western Cape, declared a policy of "open admissions," he did not mean -- he was forbidden by law from meaning -- that every young Coloured or African or Indian man and woman who completed high school would be admitted on a first-come first-served basis [which is roughly what "open admissions" at City College in New York meant during its open admissions policy.]  Gerwel meant that he would accept any student who managed to earn a matric.  Some years later, using a loophole in the law, UWC experimented with admitting several hundred non-matric students under a State policy of allowing a University Faculty Senate some discretion in admissions.  These so-called "Senate Discretionary" students, for whom of course the university received no state subsidy, were then followed at UWC to see how their performance compared to that of students who had earned a matric.  I was not at all surprised to learn that there was no discernible difference in the academic performance of the two groups.  For several years, my scholarship organization gave money to UWC specifically for bursaries for those non-matric students in an effort to encourage the experiment.

How does this relate to what Enver Motala has spent much of his life doing?  [You may be able to tell, by the way, that having spent twenty-five years of my life deeply involved with South African education, I could go on for many, many pages discussing this or that aspect of the system, but I will spare you.]  Well, while all of this was going on in the universities of South Africa, millions of African, coloured, and Indian men and women were leading their lives effectively excluded from formal higher education, and provided with woefully inadequate primary and secondary education as well.  Enver and many other committed activists have devoted their lives to offering worker education to union members [mine workers, factory workers, and so forth], to township residents, and to the rural population forced to live in the so-called Homelands.

WASTING TIME

Very tricky NY TIMES crossword puzzle today.  I had filled in more than half of it before I finally caught on to the gimmick.  After that, it was not hard to finish.

Good news.  I have found a violinist with whom to play Mozart's great duet, K423.  We shall see how it goes.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

CLARIFICATION

A reader of this blog wrote to me, disturbed to have found a story online about the corruption and evil doing of Enver Motala.  There are two Enver Motalas in South Africa, my friend, and a notorious crook.  I should have disambiguated them.  Sorry about that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

AN IMPORTANT GUEST POST BY ENVER MOTALA

Enver Motala is one of my oldest friends in South Africa.  He has spent a lifetime in the struggle, mostly in worker education in the townships and the unions.  He is an admirable example of the sort of coimmitted union organizer who seems not to exist in the same way anymore in the United States.  Over the years, we have talked for many hours about worker education, the breaking down of the walls between handwork and headwork, the principle of formal educational credentialing for life experience, and the problematic relationship of the labor movement in South Africa to the ANC and to the embrace by Thabo Mbeki of World Bank-style economic rationalization.

Yesterday he sent me this paper, which will appear in a forthcoming book.  It has appeared, in this form, in  The Mail and Guardian, the leading South African Newspaper.  Tomorrow, I will write an extended commentary relating the things Enver says to the American experience.  I urge you to read this important document.

                                                      ********************
COMMENT

Enver Motala & Salim Vally

Profound conceptual problems arise from the untested assumptions that pervade much of the thinking and research on the relationship between education, skills development and employment. Such assumptions pervade public policy, market-driven and even academic discussions about education, skills development and job creation, with the result that more fundamental and transformative approaches are deliberately underrepresented or omitted.
We believe that a number of very important -- perhaps fundamental -- issues arise for examining the relationship between education and training and the economy.

To begin with, conceptualising the relationship of the economy to education and training systems should be preceded by some orientation to the nature of the economy that is being referred to. As we know there were substantial differences within the state planning-driven economic systems that characterised the former Soviet bloc, on the one hand, and the wide varieties of capitalism that have existed throughout the 20th century, on the other.
There are also differences between post-colonial states themselves, ranging from states largely based on rural subsistence and agribusiness to those based on extractive economies or a mixture of such economies and a manufacturing sector. More recently there are economies based on a newly developed tertiary and service sector and some characterised by a high level of militarisation of economic activity.

These economies, in all their forms, exhibit a considerable variety of political systems ranging between statist and varieties of social democratic, religio-nationalist and military-oligarchic dictatorships and permutations of these. It could be argued that if there is any single thread of similarity between these systems, this would be that all these forms of political economy and statism are characterised by huge inequalities of social power expressed through the extraordinary power of statist bureaucracies on the one hand and, in the case of the varieties capitalist economies, pervasive (even if different) differentials of wealth, incomes, property ownership and socio-economic status.

All these societies evince social cleavages and structural differences that express themselves in the forms of social, class and gender disadvantage based on racial categorisation, religio-cultural prejudice, caste, geographic and other forms of social differentiation and discrimination -- whether or not these are legislatively prescribed. The defining attributes of such societies, even if they are more pronounced in some societies relative to others (Scandinavian countries relative to the United States, developed relative to underdeveloped or peripheral), have been amplified in every case by the processes of global environmental degradation whose effects have been profoundly more damaging for the lives of the urban and rural poor of these societies.

Taking just one of these multiple forms of social and political systems: What are some of the implications that are assumed -- yet untested -- about the core assertion that there is a strong relationship between education and jobs?

a)      One implication is that under the forms of production prevalent in this economic and social system there is a readily available supply of jobs if the requisite skills are there -- or that, conversely, once there are skills in the market the jobs will follow. The further assumption that follows this is that such jobs are there if not immediately then at least in the short term -- regardless of the conditions for the reproduction of capital, its composition, the social conditions for its investment, global financial flows, or even the resistance of labour to the form of its investment.

Given especially the composition of capital in market-driven economies it is unclear whether the increasing mechanisation and robotisation of work results in increases or decreases in the availability of jobs. What is the presumed relationship between the new forms of technological innovation and employment? What is the record of this relationship over time, and what similarly is the role of capital mobility in the sustainability of jobs in any national employment system. What evidence is there about this relationship in the global arena where increases in rates of unemployment are egregious?

b)      Another implication is the assumed relationship between jobs and skills demand that is largely silent about the qualitative attributes of work: that is, about all those attributes of the nature of work even in developed economic systems, such as its racialised and gendered nature, the hierarchies intrinsic to it, the lack of work security in market-based economic systems, the phenomenon of child labour, the problem of alienation, and the lack of any serious conception of citizenship and a broader framework of rights in society.

These attributes and many more characterise the constitutive social relations affecting work in all societies, making the assumptions drawn from developed economic systems about job opportunities to economic and social systems based largely on the primary economic sector or for subsistence economies untenable.

c)      How does one understand the conundrum posed by the simultaneous complaint that there are no jobs even for graduates while there are no skills that are appropriate for the economy? Is it simply that those who do have unused skills are wrongly educated and trained -- too many humanities and biblical studies degrees and too few science and technology? Or is this conundrum really an expression of the contradictory and selective preferences of capitalist labour markets, which can refuse particular skills while simultaneously complaining about the absence of skills, at once kicking out some workers while employing others based on the narrower requirements of the industry and its plants.

Indeed, underlying every anecdote about failed attempts at securing employment opportunities is the fear that for every story about an employer who seeks “qualified employees” there is a compensatory story about employers with impossible hiring requirements.

d)     And in any economic system -- and certainly in countries such as South Africa – how does the extreme concentration of capital in a few large multinational corporations affect the possibilities for employment creation both in the private sector and in a highly dependent informal economy, and what is the impact of the extreme mobility of investment capital on the possibilities for job creation in any area of work other than formal sector employment?

Assuming, however, that the corporate capital sector is not the main area of concentration of job possibility, and assuming that in fact it is in the small business, public, informal and care economy, what then are the necessary conditions that would make these areas of economic activity actual and meaningful possibilities for work? What in that case would be the types of useful economic and social activities which can be explored for the purpose of job creation and social investment – that is, outside of the formal private sector economy? What  openings are there in such economic systems not only for the much vaunted SMME's but also for alternatives based on cooperatives, the care economy and the care of the environment as part of a wider planetary responsibility and justice,and the green economy?

What realistically are the possibilities for supporting rural economic activity in the absence of the resolution of the “land question”. And if these alternative forms of economic activity and work were to be encouraged, what specifically would be the similarly alternative forms of education and skills development, alternative institutional forms, curriculum and all the associated issues that speak to a systemic approach to reconfiguring the present system quite fundamentally. And how would these be funded?

All of these, we assert, are assumptions that remain untested but are critical to any real understanding of the relationship between societies and their systems of socialisation through the processes of learning through education and training.

We can conclude from these observations that poorly developed conceptions of education and training, and their relationship to “the economy”, remain a key barrier to constructing a meaningful discourse, policies and practices about the usefulness of education and the potential role that post-school education might play in society.

Crude formulations of the connectedness of economic activity and knowledge mar any serious view of how knowledge is produced, what are its useful characteristics and how it might be assured. Complex questions reduced to “quick fix”, facile and reductionist approaches to knowledge development and particular explanations of the national skills strategy are hopelessly inadequate.

Enver Motala is a researcher at the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and rural Development at the University of Fort Hare and Salim Vally is senior researcher in the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation. Both institutions are part of the Education Policy Consortium. This is an edited extract from Work, Education and Society, edited by Motala and Vally, forthcoming from Unisa Press

 

IDLE AND MINDLESS SNARK

It is reported that Karl Rove says he knows a woman with tattoos who will not be voting Democratic.  I am not impressed.  I know an old White man who will not be voting Republican.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

MORE MUSICAL MEANDERINGS


My ruminations about viola playing have elicited several long and very interesting comments, by C. Rossi and James Camien McGuiggan.  I turned these over in my mind this morning as I took my daily walk, huddled inside my sweater and hoodie against the 27 degree cold.  What follows is a rather unstructured series of thoughts provoked by those two comments, and by some memories from long ago.

C. Rossi raises a number of questions about the role of the conductor in a musical performance, keyed to a lovely story about Yitzhak Perlman [I accept his emendation of my spelling of Perlman's first name.]  To save space, I am going to assume that you have all taken the time to read the two comments.  He is quite right that we must include trios, quintets, and even sextets with the more familiar quartets as instances of cooperative music making without a conductor.  In a quartet [the genre with which I am most familiar], the first violinist starts them off by raising the violin a bit, or by a nod of the head or some other signal, but thereafter, the four musicians interact with one another constantly rather than following one leader.  The only exceptions to this convention of the first violinist cuing the group are those cases in which one or more of the other players begin a movement and the first violin is silent for a bit.  [For obvious reasons, my favorite example of this is the last movement of the third Rasumowsky -- Beethoven Opus 59, #3 -- a blindingly fast fugue in which the viola !! states the subject -- a rare moment for a violist.]

There are some modern examples of chamber orchestras that play without a conductor, but the modern full scale symphony orchestra is always led by a conductor who stands on a podium, facing the musicians rather than  the audience, and like as not reading from a full orchestra score set on a stand in front of him or her [although even now it is almost always a man.]  I should say that my last personal experience of playing in an orchestra was sixty-three years ago, when I was a student at Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York.  The conductor of the school orchestra was a music teacher named Max Pollock, who was rumored to play jazz in his off hours.  We were not much of an orchestra if the truth be known.  Our signature pieces were Leroy Anderson's "The Syncopated Clock" and Borodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia, but Mr. Pollock's principal task was getting us to play the National Anthem sufficiently in tune to allow the students to sing it at school assemblies.  This is the reason why, to this day, I have an imperfect grasp of the words of The Star Spangled Banner.  I never actually got to sing it in high school.

We are all familiar with the theatrical bobbing and weaving and exaggerated arm movements that pass for orchestra conducting these days.  Modern conductors remind me of nothing so much as Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, mimicking the extremely dramatic style of Leopold Stokowski as he conducts an army of brooms carrying pails of water.  All of that modern dance on the podium has virtually nothing to do with the actual music making of the instrumentalists, of course.  Now, I am sympathetic with the conductors.  After all, they never get to actually make music.  The lowliest second violinist in the last chair is contributing more sound than the conductor.

This is not to say that the conductor is superfluous.  Far from it.  It falls to the conductor to choose, and then to elicit, an interpretation of the music, which, as James McGuiggan quite correctly reminds us, is very much more indeed than just playing the notes in time and in tune.  A real big league orchestra conductor will have a deep knowledge of the entire score, right down to the last note of every line, and he or she will make a large number of choices, not only about tempo and dynamics [loud or soft, etc.] but about such things as the balance among the several string sections at each point in the piece and even where exactly the wind players will take their breaths.  The conductor may decide that there is a place in the music where a passage played by the cellists needs to be heard above the violins and violas, or that a phrase played by the oboist should be unbroken by a breath.  Those tiny choices, folded into a professional performance by musicians who can be counted on to play the notes correctly, can dramatically alter the aesthetic quality of the final performance.  It is no small thing to master the score of, say, a Beethoven symphony so completely that you can make those choices and communicate them to the musicians.  There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the legendary conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Arturo Toscanini.  As the orchestra was about to begin working on a new piece, the second oboist raised his hand and said "Excuse, me, Maestro, but I am not certain I can play today.  The B-flat key on my oboe is broken."  Toscanini paused for a moment, looked off into the middle distance, and replied, "It is all right.  You do not have a B-flat."

When I was a boy, my parents were very friendly with Joe and Vera Vieland, who, it was said, had escaped from Russia after the revolution by walking all the way across Asian Russia to Vladivostok and then taking a boat to America.  Joe was a violist with the Philharmonic.  Fifty years later, when I was studying the viola seriously, I was thrilled to find myself working on a number of compositions adapted from the violin or cello literature for the viola that read in small letters over the right-hand end of the first line "arranged by Joseph Vieland."  Toscanini was a tyrant and Joe was a rebel, and apparently he would laboriously work his way up to first desk in the viola section, only to have a fight with the Maestro about something that would land him back at the last desk again.  It was Joe who pointed my parents toward Mrs. Zacharias when I decided as a boy to study the violin.

But all the real work of the conductor of a big league orchestra is completed during rehearsal.  If that work has been productive, and if the conductor's musical vision is compelling, the result will be a truly memorable performance that can rightly be described as an "interpretation," not just as a performance.  The hand waving and bobbing and weaving is for the audience, many of whom probably are as capable of distinguishing a great from a merely competent performance as they are of telling a great Cabernet from two buck chuck.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ONCE AGAIN, A REPLY TO JERRY FRESIA


As so often happens, Jerry Fresia asks questions that cut to the heart of my blog posts and elicits from me responses I would not otherwise have thought to include in my ramblings.  He really asks three or four questions, and I have a different reply to each one.  Here is his complete comment:

"While your story of learning the mechanics, as it were, is fascinating (I'm still trying to fathom how playing notes with a bow differs from striking a keyboard), I'm more curious about what playing the music (once you get to it) does for you as you play it. After all, there is a lot of work going into this, so what's the payoff? Or maybe I should ask this: suppose you were technically perfect, you still wouldn't rival Perlman and Zuckerman, would you? What is the "music"?

Is the language, "to die for," reserved for such things as being moved by music or could you use the same phrase in relationship to, say, reading Kant?"

First things first.  When you strike a key on a piano, inside a little cloth covered hammer hits a string.  Thus, a piano is a percussion instrument.  When you strike a key on a harpsichord, a plectrum [?] plucks a string.  [Hence you cannot play a harpsichord soft or loud -- pianaforte].  When you draw a bow over a string on a violin, or viola, or cello, or double base, friction catches the hairs of the bow on the string and causes it to vibrate, producing a sound amplified by the box and sound post of the instrument. 

It is very hard for me to say exactly what playing the viola does for me.  There are, in me, a complex mixture of emotions and thoughts.  First of all, there is the pleasure on those occasions -- rare or common as may be -- when I make a resonant and beautiful sound.  Making a sound is fundamentally different from merely hearing a sound, although they are related.  When I play an entire phrase in tune and with a good tone, there is a special pleasure [no easy matter on the viola -- pianists have it easy, which is why they play so many notes.  Any idiot can play one note on the piano, and it will sound as good as though it were played by Alfred Brendel.]  Second, there is the pleasure of accomplishment, of working hard and actually getting better.  Then, there is the thought, deep inside but never absent, that my mother and father, sainted be their memories, would be pleased.  Even men approaching eighty feel that somewhere inside.  When I play in a quartet, there is the comradeship of making music with my fellow quartet-mates.  Each quartet experience is different.  In Pelham, MA, I would sit next to the cellist, Barbara Davis, in our quartet, and listen to her beautiful tone as I strove to match my own tone to hers.

There is one thing I am not able to do, simply because I do not play well enough, and that is to craft an interpretation of the music.  That takes a good deal more skill than I possess.  Now, it is of course possible to "master" an instrument and play with a soulless technical excellence.  That is the way I have always imagined Condaleeza Rice playing the piano, at which she is apparently technically quite proficient.  [I may be doing her a profound disservice, in which case I humbly apologize.]  But only in the everyone-gets-a-trophy world of modern private elementary schooling do we pretend that a novice performer is offering an "interpretation."  It is all I can do to play all the correct notes in the right tempo.  I could no more choose to give a Romantic reading of a Bach sonata for unaccompanied cello, arranged for the viola, than I could decide to do a Triple Lutz on the ice.

The last question is one about which I have thought a good deal.  My reference here is the wonderful old movie, The Hustler, starring the young Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felsen with the always great George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason doing an unforgettable turn as Minnesota Fats.  You will recall the scene in which Fast Eddie and Fats play pool all night.  Newman moves around the table like a great cat, at one point saying, "I can't miss."  Please forgive me for how this sounds, but there have been times in my life, teaching a class on the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason or Das Kapital, when I have felt like that.  The words flow effortlessly, I can see the arguments as though they were suspended in air before me in all their beauty and simplicity, and I know that I cannot miss.  That is a feeling I do know, a feeling I have earned, and those moments are for me the supreme moments of my life.  I can imagine Yo Yo Ma feeling that way as he leans back from the neck of his cello and simply allows the music to flow from his fingers and bow arm as though it had a life of its own.