Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Thinking a lot these days about the relationship between the Enlightenment and religion, and between the Enlightenment and romanticism, and between what Tim Blanning, in his fabulous book The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815, calls the interplay between the culture of reason and the culture of feeling. These issues are at the heart of human history over the last two centuries, and they still define much of where we are at. So I'll try to get back to a more intellectual approach to those questions shortly ... at least before I finish the Blanning book and dive into a re-read of my favorite absolute monarch, Frederick the Great.

Said Diderot: "Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection." Notwithstanding the obviousness of this and its unrelenting rationalism, it is a cruel prescription. It is also the prescription of an ideologue, for it presupposes the extinction of its opposite. History does not work that way, and in the event, notwithstanding the enormous gift that the Enlightenment gave to humanity, it did not work that way for our heroes, that is Diderot and his pals. Blanning calls the Enlightenment the culture of reason. And then there was the revanche of the culture of feeling.

Goethe said in his "Concerning German Architecture": "The only true art is characteristic art. If its influence arises from deep, harmonious, independent feeling, from feeling peculiar to itself, oblivious, yes, ignorant, of anything foreign, then it is whole and living, whether it be born from crude savagery or cultured sentiment."

Look at the difference between the key terms of those two statements: examined versus feeling. Look at the difference between the positive statement of Diderot against the essentially negative statement of Goethe. For Goethe, that which lives is that which is not foreign, that which is native, natural, peculiar, and, yes, ignorant.

In our era of the economic triumph of the rational (not to say that economics is rational, by the way), we have become witless victims of feeling. The truth is in the middle, of course, and perhaps I can demonstrate this by the following.

So there I was in Winchester, relaxing in the newly remodeled and fabulous living room of my brother and sister-in-law. It turns out that they are fanatics of American Idol also, and we had resolved to spend the Tuesday evening of my pilgrimage to the Cheese Capital of the Ottawa Valley passing opinion on the efforts of the remaining eight contestants. The boys again outsang the girls, although that did not prevent the fickle public ... and remember the claim that the "public" was invented in the period roughly comprising the Enlightenment and its lead-up ... from voting off the smoothly talented Michael Johns.

But what hit me, again, was the Jason Castro version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Have a listen (I have substituted a later studio version because YouTube killed the earlier version I had here):



My sister-in-law did not know that this song is an anthem for gay men ... I wonder how many gay men younger than I am know what this song meant to gay men before gay liberation. It is, of course, Judy Garland's song, and Judy died on June 22, 1969. When the cops raided the Stonewall bar in the early morning of June 28, 1969, the nelly queens were still mourning their fallen heroine, and their grief and rage and pent-up yearning to be free created the riot that launched the movement to which I owe my freedom. She is our Joan of Arc, and her terrible death spurred us to seek our freedom.

Now listen to Judy sing it:



"Why oh why can't I?" You see, the essence of the appeal of Judy's version is that it is an appeal to reason. Beset by her troubles, most particularly the horrid Miss Gulch who wanted to take away "that little dog", she wonders why things are so irrational, why she can't fly as birds do. There is no rational reason why she cannot live rationally. The essence of the movements for freedom of the 70s, the gay movement, the black movement, and the women's movement, had that precise negative appeal to reason: there is no rationale that adds up to denying us our ability to be fully human, to do with our lives as we wish to do.

No doubt Judy's song is filled with feeling. It moved me when I was a child, and it still sends chills down my spine as I listen to it on YouTube. But, no matter, it is still an appeal to reason. And thereby, we can see concretely how reason and feeling are not inimical.

Where, then, is the reason in Jason Castro, hot and appealing, his neck bedecked with a cross?

Simon Cowell mentioned a version on the Internet by one Israel which, like Castro's version, features a ukulele. Again, have a listen ... this one is a little longer, so feel free to cut out:


Israel Kamakawiwo'ole died at the age of 38 in 1997 of respiratory failure due to obesity that, at one point, topped 750 pounds. He is held in high regard by Hawaiian musicians. But his version is a song stripped of any appeal to reason, and left with only feeling. It is pure sentimentality ... the fact that a song that Judy Garland made iconic in about two minutes rambles on for over four minutes ... well, the maudlin always takes more time than the iconic.

I like this version. It filled me. But there is nothing here but feeling.

Poor Jason Castro, a sweet boy with alluring tight pants, just has no clue about any of this ... certainly nothing in his performance alluded to the historic resonances of this song. If Israel's version was pure feeling, Castro's version stripped away the feeling and left us with affect alone ... skillful affect, certainly. I admit that I enjoyed the performance. I hope the boy hangs in there and makes a record. But that spare individual style of his has no depth ... he would be ideal for Christian music ... it has no savoir faire, it has no reason. It has no approach to the realities that grip us and control us and toss us to and fro. He is not a new Bob Dylan, he is the person whom Tiny Tim lampooned.

So when we think of of the enduring dialectic between the culture of reason and the culture of feeling, we have to remember that reason has feeling and that feeling is never bereft of reason. It is not good enough to draw up the dialectic ... we have to define the terms. Feeling stripped of reason is a zero divider, as I like to say ... any equation in which here is a zero divider can admit of any answer. When people say that they just feel that there must be some higher purpose, they open themselves to anything ... and history has shown us that "anything" can be bloody awful.

But on the other side, reason without feeling is the motor of the ideologue ... the potential for a relentless "truth" that extinguishes the very reason that bred it.

In either case, without the dialectic, we are left with Miss Gulch.

2 comments:

johnmijac said...

Lovely piece, lovely mind. Thanks for the fine balance between mind and heart.

Ray Beckerman said...

Interesting analysis, Arod. I happen to love both Judy Garland's version, and Iz's version. I cannot dismiss either.

To me it's about two different world perspectives, one which is closer to mine, one which is further removed from mine but which is probably more valid and life sustaining.

Dorothy (and Judy) (and Ray) (and apparently Arod) can feel anger over life's injustices.

Iz, I believe, didn't have the angry bone in his body, because he trusted the universe, and had faith in healing.

As you know I often tweet this beautiful tribute to Iz, in which "over the Rainbow" is played, depicting his memorial service.

How can the people be joyous? Because they know that Iz is with them. They don't think it. They know it.