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Franz Liszt’s Orpheus & Travels in Time

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While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.

I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.

Goethe’s garden house in Weimar, Germany.

It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)

It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.

We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.

Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated


Dear Readers,

In my continuing attempt to try new things, I present to you today a guest blog post. A while back, my friend and colleague John King (also one of my most faithful readers and commentators on the blog) emailed me separately a longer series of thoughts he’d had in response to one of my posts. Casually, I said that I should make him a guest blogger, and, lo and behold, he then sent me this erudite little essay.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. The discipline has been too good for me. But I’m hoping to post maybe one guest blog a month to bring more variety to the contemplations here. So here’s to a spirit of experimentation. Let me know what you think.

L

* * *

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

by John King

I am not certain that, as an ad for The Secret proclaims, Shakespeare actually knew “the Secret,” but I am quite sure P. T. Barnum knew the secret behind “the Secret.”

“Smile and the world is yours,” Henry Miller writes in Black Spring. “Smile through the death rattle—it makes it easier for those you leave behind. Smile, damn you! The smile that never comes off!

The Will to Happiness, a.k.a. Positivism, is a willful disengagement with the real world, a form of denial, of censorship. This is precisely the sort of thinking that led the Bush administration to scoff at “the reality-based community” as it planned its war in Iraq. Death toll of the Iraq War: 162,000. This fact would be shameful, if reality is a meaningful entity. But the mainstream media machine, including the mainstream punditry, has never reported the actual death-toll, treating this essential statistic like a psychological tar baby.

This is an affirmation of the unexamined life.

Phobias about negativity, about depression, bad news, agita, and strife, are based on a fear of psychic vampirism, that others will drain you of your vitality, your confidence, your mental health. Schopenhauer believed that the boundaries between others and ourselves is illusory, and in moments of moral clarity, heroes see how contiguous we are with humanity, and behave accordingly. But it takes a profoundly strong person to acknowledge this truth, and there is not always something such a person can do to help others, relieve them of certain brutalities and cruelties of existence.

“Can the world be as sad as it seems?” asks the narrator of Throbbing Gristle’s “The Old Man Smiled.” Marlow loses his mind and his humanity when he sees enslaved Africans in Heart of Darkness. His racism and inability to cope with his experiences begins there and then.

The world of business is systematically skewed towards simplicity and optimism in its communication. According to Kitty O. Locker’s Business and Administrative Communication, business writing should exhibit something called “you-attitude,” a focus only on the immediate concerns of the recipient of a message, without burdening the recipient with any of the sender’s extraneous concerns. And all messages should also feature positive emphasis, whenever possible. On The Simpsons, Mr. Burns re-labels a nuclear meltdown at his power plant as an “un-requested fission surplus.”

The opposite of the Will to Happiness, what we might call Romantic melancholia, is of course also ridiculously out of touch with reality. Shakespeare mocked that self-indulgent impulse in 1602, in Twelfth Night, in the character of Count Orsino, who pleads “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” (This is, incidentally, more or less how I feel when I hear nearly anything by Abba.) Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, Goethe wasn’t kidding about the Romantic sorrows of young Werther, and today’s goth kids lack the sense not to stew in their own weltschmerz as an actual lifestyle choice.

According to the early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, the most primal laughter is a manifestation of the incongruous knowledge that our minds exist in something like a pure mode of being, godlike, but our minds are, nonetheless, attached to a body that is destined to fail, to decay, to die. This is the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s entire literary and dramatic career. This is the foundation, too, of the mythos of Beckett’s beloved idol, Buster Keaton: the expressive consciousness of his face, juxtaposed with the improbable feats of his body as he strives to contend with the gross, sublime physicality of the world. This philosophy is also the core of the dark, ranting comedy apparatus of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.

I often find myself drawn to the honesty of cartoons, a genre in which the content is considered culturally debased, and so can afford more satirical gravity than what supposed grown-ups watch. (An inexpensive observation: The Simpsons offers profoundly more reality than Undercover Boss.)

No cartoon I know of has more to say about this subject than that 1990s counter-culture classic, Ren and Stimpy, in particular an episode called “Stimpy’s Invention.” It depicts the terror of the Will to Happiness in a way similar to Henry Miller in Black Spring, but far more disturbingly, in Bergsonian terms. Stimpy, the ever-optimistic and cheerful orange cat, is wracked with empathetic sorrow when his companion, Ren the chihuahua, is not happy. So he builds a helmet that alters Ren’s brainwaves that force Ren’s mind into a happy state. The helmet that never comes off! The pressure of the Will to Happiness escalates.

Ultimately, the ability to voice discontent, pain, and sadness is cathartic. To silence such speech is to deny who and what we are, to deny even the possibility of knowing who and what we are, and so it diminishes who and what we can be.

John King is a creative writer, literary scholar, and journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Turnrow, Palooka, Gargoyle, Pearl, and Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and is forthcoming from The Newer York. He regularly reviews books for The Literary Review and theater for Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a contributor to Celebrations magazine. He is currently serving as a composition sherpa at the University of Central Florida. His most recent works, a short-short story called “Perfection” and an essay called “The Muse of Florida,” will appear in the new book 15 Views of Orlando.