Culture: March 2003 Archives

I haven't been able to just walk away from the distressing experience of last night's religious assault at BAM, John Adams' "El Niño."

The story of the piece was in fact not that of the niño or child, but the mother of the child, specifically the mother of the man organized christianity misuses as the excuse for its existence. Possibly the most disturbing aspect of the evening for most in the audience was that what may have been intended as a salute to woman was patronizing in the extreme.


Historically the Catholic Church eventually absorbed the people's cult of Mary for the same reason that the observance originated in the first place, the men who ran the home office operation had gone too far with the guy message of control and fear and had left compassion and a lot of people behind, especially people who had taken seriously the early Christian message of love and respect.

The Church needed to protect its power. It went with the Mary thing, but only on its own terms. Mary intercedes for us with the men. The Church has never suggested a woman could really be equal to men of any kind, on earth, in heaven or even in hell for that matter, since each of these branch offices has always been run by males. We are assured this will forever be the case, since Mister God has said so.

Adams' oratorial is more than comfortable with that.

Don't go!

It's a trap. A religious cult has abducted John Adams and forced him to create a monstrosity, called "El Niño," which opened in New York tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Unfortunately our city will be subjected to its offensive cant again on Saturday.

While there were some beautiful musical moments, and one extraordinary extended piece, "Memorial to Tlateloco," the oratorial was basically ill-conceived, and should never have seen the light of day. "El Niño" offended me and should profoundly offend any humanist and anyone concerned with the dignity of women.

I do not go to the concert hall or the opera to be subjected to religious proselytizing, a glorification of the mysteries of the Roman Catholic superhero and an argument for the transfigurative fulfillment of women in the role of motherhood, especially something created in this, my own era, one I would generally like to share with rational people of good conscience. Not incidently, and not surprisingly, this monstrosity was also simply bad art.

Samples from the text:

"O how precious is the virginity
of this virgin whose gate is closed,
and whose womb holy divinity infused with his warmth
so that a flower grew in her.
This is from Hildegard von Bingen, whose music we all adore, but whose words are better left to our imagination, or Latin, 900 years later. But here's more, from one of the three kings, via the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío:
"I am Balthasar. I have brought gold.
I assure you, God exists. He is great and strong.
I know it is so because of the perfect star
that shines so brightly in Death's diadem."
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess [sic] that I really, really love Adams' "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghofer," and I have championed both as the very best operas of the late twentieth century, but the great man came up with even more than just a dud this time. I will think twice, maybe more, before going back again.

In an article frustratingly inadequate for the subject, at least on account of its brevity (although it takes 64 inches of NYTimes typespace, including two excellent historical photographs), Richard Bernstein reports on a new German phenomenon.

After sixty years of virtual neglect in Germany, the story of what its civilians suffered at the hands of the Allies during World War II has now become a common subject of discussion at all levels of society, inspiring serious treatment in literature, theatre, film and television.

Ms. John, who witnessed the nighttime firebombing of Dresden by the Royal Air Force on Feb. 13, 1945 — an attack that killed about 35,000 people and destroyed one of the most beautiful cities in Europe — was doing what many Germans have been doing lately: talking about their own suffering in World War II.

For the last few months in fact, television has been showing endless documentaries and discussions of the air war waged by Britain and the United States against Germany in World War II. While this is not exactly a new subject in Germany, there are at least two ways in which the discussion is different from the past.

First, the emphasis in today's articles and discussions is on what Jörg Friedrich, author of a best-selling book on the Allied bombing campaign, calls "Leideform," the form of suffering inflicted on the German civilian population.

In other words, a taboo, by which Germans have remained guiltily silent, at least in public, about their experience of the horrors of war, has been suddenly and rather mysteriously broken.

Second, the new awareness of the Allied bombings and the devastation they wrought has become an important element in German opposition to the expected American war on Iraq. What people like Ms. Lang and Ms. John, both antiwar activists in Dresden, have been saying is something like this: We have direct knowledge of the gruesome effects of war and we don't want anybody else to experience what we have experienced.

For an account of the literary side of this development, see, "War and Remembrance." a review by Hugh Eakin in the current The Nation of two new books dealing with the questions of guilt and "guilt about having too much guilt." Unfortunately the essay is only available in the print edition.

Even if it can't bring itself to do the proper business of Congress itself, the U.S. House of Representatives has the courage and the time to rename items on all of its cafeteria menus in response to the terrorist threat from France, or Belgium, or, oh shucks, does it matter?

Washington - Wave the flag and pass the ketchup was the order of the day yesterday in House of Representatives cafeterias, where lawmakers struck a lunchtime blow against the French and put "freedom fries" on the menu.

And for breakfast, they'll now have "freedom toast."

France however knows the world, and the French government knows its responsibilities.
The French Embassy in Washington said French fries actually come from Belgium.

"We are at a very serious moment dealing with very serious issues and we are not focusing on the name you give to potatoes," said Nathalie Loisau, an embassy spokeswoman.

The Russians have come to Lorman, Mississippi, and that's a very good thing indeed.

It is not easy getting white students to come here, to Alcorn State University, a tiny, historically black campus tucked away in the lush green isolation of southwestern Mississippi, 25 miles from the nearest McDonald's or movie theater.

So when the new coach of the tennis team, Tony Dodgen, recruited a player from Russia back in 1998, no one had any reason to think that he had stumbled upon the way to make Alcorn more inviting to white Mississippians. How could one white face make a difference?

But then the player, Mikhail Frolov, persuaded his girlfriend to join him. The two each brought more of their friends over from Russia. And Mr. Frolov's mother, a high school English teacher, began to tell her students about the university in America that was giving away full scholarships.

Four and a half years later, Alcorn is home to a thriving pod of Russians. Mr. Frolov is a certified public accountant, and no fewer than 23 students from his hometown, Voronezh, are enrolled here as undergraduates studying literature or business, as graduate students in nursing or computer science, as athletes or musicians, and even as unexceptional students with a flair for throwing off-campus parties where everyone is welcome, and where language and race add up to even less of a social barrier than the drinking age.

Now, Alcorn's president, Clinton Bristow, looks at his Russian students and sees hope for the kind of racial diversity that he has long desired for this school, and that the courts have mandated for Mississippi's formerly segregated public colleges and universities. If Alcorn ever achieves such diversity, he says, it will be because white Mississippians decide they can be comfortable here.

He was a treasure for the visual art world and a beautiful soul to those who knew him. Colin de Land died this week.

Actually the moment has already passed. On Friday the NYTimes print edition included the following amazing headline in the "Business Day" section:

Random House Names an Editor With Literary Ties
By evening at least, the online edition was displaying the somewhat less satirical caption to the same story:
New Editor at Random House
Someone decided not to reference quite so dramatically what the Times article calls the publishing house's recent "unusually harsh dismissal" of the new editor's predecessor, Ann Godoff, in what most people in the publishing world considered a move away from quality and toward the more commercial status of the firm's sister company, Ballantine, with which the Random House label itself was consolidated at the same time.

[editor's note: I suppose we should just be happy we get anything at all these days other than John Grisham and Danielle Steele. Look at what's happened to radio and television.]

This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from March 2003.

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