Friday, April 27, 2007

"Ростропович ушёл"

I have an admission to make: until today, I did not really know who Mstislav Rostropovich was. And perhaps that is a tragedy, because he is gone. Of course, having been educated in an environment of intelligence, introspection, and pedantry I knew about his collaborators: about Prokofiev, about Shostakovich. In St. Petersburg my friend Jim and I rode an escalator up from the metro - one of those incredibly long Russian escalators that give you the sense of either descending into or escaping from the bowels of hell - under a poster for a performance of Shostakovich pieces at the Marinskii. In high school, when I asked my friend Jason - a talented violist - for musical recommendations that were fiery, extreme, and schizophrenically beautiful, he pointed me again to Shostakovich.

Admittedly, I have fewer obscurely aesthetic memories of Prokofiev, but I love his music, and I think that makes up for it.

However, I knew nothing about their virtuoso: an outspoken proponent of artistic freedom, a cellist, a conductor, by all accounts a genius. Here is a man who spoke openly against Soviet suppression, indeed against all suppression of creativity by the deadweights of fear, stupidity, and apathy. In 1970, he wrote: “Explain to me, please, why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word. Every man must have the right fearlessly to think independently and express his opinion about what he knows, what he has personally thought about and experienced, and not merely to express with slightly different variations the opinion which has been inculcated in him.” International press published his statement. Pravda did not (ref: NY Times).

Why does it upset me to have missed out on knowing about this man? Of course, he was a great musician, but his work continues to exist in recordings, in memories. In part it makes me feel like a far poorer student of Russian culture: shouldn't I have known? But then, a person can only absorb so much in five years. After all, I know about 2H Company.

In fact, I think I'm just struck by the vital importance of cultural icons. Not to diminish Rostropovich as a man: from all accounts I've seen he was an incredible human being as well as a distinguished artist, playing (for example) an impromptu concert at the fall of the Berlin Wall. But when Kurt Vonnegut died, I realized that people do not just love the art of their idols (a term I'm bandying about here pretty loosely), by proxy they love the human beings as well.

Never have I been so devastated by the death of a stranger as I was by Vonnegut. I wanted to sit still all day with my head on someone's knee, being comforted. It was a reaction I knew to be irrational: even friends who love his writing just as much as I do felt compelled to say things to me like: "Well, he was old, you know..." But I still took the loss very personally, like a sucker punch from a slightly less beautiful world. I had in a sense - and perhaps without knowing it - considered him to be something of an intellectual father figure: aloof, sarcastic, and spot-on.

And so, by feeling these things, by allowing myself to mourn for a man I'd never met, never known, I made a deal with the world. By accepting the anonymous condolences of the world for a mourner, I offered my own sentiments up for those like me who love irrationally: too much and too well.

So I'm sorry for all those who loved Rostropovich, whether he was known through a handshake, a photograph, a record or a kiss good night. The best I can do is listen to his Bach Suites, to say I'm sorry and offer my own faded and quiet farewell.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

"If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a
one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind."

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1922-2007

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Pretty Nifty

I'm getting pretty close to finishing the arduous task of completing my taxes for the first time without almost any help from my father. When this isn't making me feel simultaneously proud of myself and semi-pathetic, it makes me think about where my taxes go.

There was a brief period in my high school years in which an enthusiastic student teacher tried to invest everyone in Honors American History with a sense of civil service while also teaching us about the Dust Bowl Era and the Great Depression. While it was difficult, as a jaded high schooler, not to find his ardency quaint, there were a couple of things he said that stuck with me (not to mention his frequent use of Rage Against the Machine in the classroom).

One of those things was his resolute statement that he did not mind paying taxes; that, in fact, he enjoyed paying them. He listed such services as schools and libraries and roadways, extolling the virtues of participating in their creation through hard work and a patriotic sense of duty.

I don't disagree with him. Paying taxes doesn't hurt me, and I certainly appreciate roads and schools as a general rule. But speaking to friends who are working abroad, or to those who evaluate regularly the state of our public services, it becomes clear that America is not really a country wherein these services are of paramount importance.

By saying so, I don't simply mean to harp on the much-lamented state of public schools, or potholes in the road, or even corrupt officials. I'm more interested in what I perceive as the collective subconscious opinion of these services. It isn't that people don't use libraries, nor are most people looking for viable alternatives to our current sanitation departments. But America is, seemingly by nature, without pride in our public services. We simply don't seem to care about them on a personal level, no matter how integral they are to our existence.

My sense is that this emotional ambivalence occurs because public services bespeak no progress to our lazy minds: they're ubiquitous (at least where I live...), and we see them as rights. It is, rather, the innovations that fascinate our society, the ability to tweak and to delve that we see as valuable. If nothing else, people sure love what's clever.

Is it good to place such importance on the different and the new? This is arguable, certainly. But I suspect that if people take real pleasure in innovations, then perhaps that is what their minds really need. Or, that it is at least useful. Take, for example

BookCrossing is a website that registers people from around the country for a "read and release" program - a roving library, if you will. Someone reads a book, registers it, and then leaves it on a designated park bench to be picked up by a stranger and looked at through new eyes.

Logically, there is nothing about this program that is superior to a library. It's no more free, no more convenient. But...then there's the mystery.

Part of reading is, ultimately, escapism. And the beauty of the BookCrossing project is that it endows the experience of reading - hell, just touching - one particular book with an enigmatic quality by making it's reader aware of the readers who came before them.

In most situations this will not actually improve the quality of the book. But one of the things that makes life so frustrating is how constant it is, how consistent. Even for the most avid reader, time can make pages into mere pages, words into mere words. And so I am for the small curiosities as much as the institutions, for BookCrossing as much as for libraries. I will keep paying my taxes, but when I get bored I will think of something new.