21 February 2014

The joys and perils of live classical

Two and a half years of living in the UK have afforded me and my wife quite a few opportunities to applaud some of our favourite artists. I've mentioned Arcadi Volodos, Valentina Lisitsa and Eric Whitacre before. Boris Berezovsky was a slightly hurried delight; Marc-André Hamelin showcased his complete mastery and superb musicianship; András Schiff, talking about and performing the Diabelli Variations, brought to mind the luminous memory of Daniel Barenboim's Chicago Beethoven masterclasses of almost a decade ago; Mitsuko Uchida was equally at home in Mozart and Messiaen; Stephen Hough (whose beautiful Schumann album is playing right now in my EarPods) offered a lacklustre Liszt (1st concerto) and an offensive encore (a badly played Chopin, in a Hungarian themed program); Cédric Tiberghien was the perfect companion to the effusive Pieter Wispelwey. And Midori was imperial in DoReMi.

Fabio Biondi's Europa Galante was almost beyond reproach; Lionel Meunier's outstanding Vox Luminis made us go back for their second London appearance; nobody does a fresher, more exciting Messiah than the Academy of Ancient Music; the Belmont Ensemble of London deserved better brass players on the night; The King's Singers in Salisbury Cathedral were electrifying; The Thallis Scholars in their anniversary concert at St Paul's were ravishing; Jeffrey Skidmore's Ex Cathedra is a worthy institution; so are The Cardinall's Musick, or the Temple Church Choir. The Choir of Westminster Abbey is definitely dwarfed by the cavernous abode of the famous dead. And yes, we also enjoyed non-classical performances by Straight No Chaser and The Real Group.

Excepting most of the events hosted at Wigmore, where one can still encounter the impudent wrapper crackle, and the occasional well behaved audience, I still curse the time and money so often wasted by idiot concert goers. The constant fidgeting and pen clicking right behind me at Cadogan Hall; the sonorous bracelets right across the isle; the unruly bunch of kids, whose chaperon couldn't be bothered, at the unforgiving Symphony Hall in Birmingham; the distinguished elderly lady next to me with an infernal tick-tock on her wrist; and, most shameless and annoying, the use of loud, sometimes culminating, passages to mask" all sorts of coughing. Shall I mention the slender pensioner who threatened to step on my phone, only because, at intermission, I was sharing with my wife some of the best pics from our earlier visit at the Manchester Art Gallery? Classical concerts can be downright dangerous in this gentlemanly country.

06 January 2014

Flirting with eternal damnation

If last January's event at the crossroads of atheism and religion was the emergence of The Sunday Assembly (possibly the fastest growing “church" in the world), this January former Adventist pastor and minor celebrity Ryan Bell is making news with his plan to chronicle a Year Without God. For this “believing atheist" it comes as no surprise that both (many) believers and (some) atheists find it hard to wrap their heads around such a venture. While no two intellectual biographies are the same, I'll throw in my two cents.

It's not that one should dare opt for eternal damnation that irks the faithful - the world is, after all, replete with the numerous sorts of the doomed. It's the flirting which they find simply appalling! They haven't yet learned Tim Minchin's “anthem to ambivalence". A “true believer" loves an unbeliever, nay, he/she needs the unbeliever - it's the latter who gives the “true believer" his/her gravitas. “The Cross", for instance, is supposed to divide history and the world in clear, opposing parties. One can either embrace or reject its claims. Sitting on the fence suggests the possibility that “the Cross" is not all that important to either history or the world. It ridicules and offends the devout way more than outright rejection.

As for reading atheist literature, one need not look further than the Bible itself. When the stultifying straightjackets of a “spiritual" hermeneutics are put aside, this ancient collection of texts reveals itself for what it actually is - the best argument for atheism conceivable. God is only a mirror for humanity. There is no such thing as prophecy, let alone “Messianic prophecy". The apocalyptic imperialism of the “Kingdom of Christ" is no better than the delusional dreams of Jerusalemite world dominance. And I'd replace the likes of Spinoza and Locke with George Carlin, Tim Minchin and the rest of the best preachers of disbelief. If one is to go to hell, why not go laughing?

07 February 2013

Times and means of rapprochement (V)

In Cult and Character, the red cow ritual (Numbers 19) is interpreted in an inescapably contradictory manner (see pp.183-184). On the one hand, Gane states that “the red cow ritual avoids bringing corpse contamination into any contact with the sanctuary". But he had just written that “in other purification offerings... the blood, carrying the moral or physical impurity, affects the sanctuary", meaning specifically that “sacrificial purification of the offerer necessarily involves transfer of his/her evil to YHWH". Why would anyone avoid “bringing corpse contamination into any contact with the sanctuary" when the whole point of expiation is, according to Gane, to bring sin and contamination into expiatory contact with the sanctuary? On the other hand, Gane is among those who see the red cow ritual as a sacrifice. The sevenfold sprinkling toward the sanctuary is a remote application of חטאת blood to the sancta. How can Gane concede then that “the red cow ritual is the only חטאת sacrifice in connection with which automatic defilement is mentioned, and this defilement only occurs when the impure person does not receive the benefit of the sacrifice" (his emphasis)? It would seem that Gane cannot help defiling the temple. Rebellion and sacrifices alike dump man's iniquity upon the holiest. Sacrifices only dampen (“downgraded toxicity", as on page 179) an otherwise boomeranging blow to the fickle flame of Yahweh's gory glory (I admit I got carried away).

Returning to Leviticus 16 and “the goat unto Azazel", one cannot escape the similarity the Yom Kippurim ritual bears to the apotropaic gestures of Leviticus 14:7.53. In neither of these instances is there any intimation of transfer (of disease or impurity) or of blood functioning as a “ritual sponge". The cleansing human is a healed human, while the house to be cleansed has never been declared unclean (we have already noted the post-quarantine rite of passage in Leviticus 13). Similarly, whenever the temple is to be rededicated, any agent of impurity (idols mostly) is removed before the performance of inaugural sacrifices. The כפר sacrifices are nothing but gestures of approach - “rituals that confirm and routinize the recognized borders of the sacred place" (Ron E. Hassner's definition from a decade old article on interreligious conflict). Yom Kippurim was not the antidote to, but the culmination of a whole year of ritual activity. There was no reversal in ritual semantics, but a deepening of the כפר purpose - coming as close as possible to the flammable presence of God. Sacrifices were not meant to decontaminate the temple (Milgrom's theory) or contaminate it throughout most of the year (Gane's). They only mended fences. In this context, the suggestion that the horns of the altar (or human body extremities, for that matter) functioned as boundary markers (Gn.31:52) and therefore as (covenant) memorials (Ex.24:4) seems quite plausible.

04 February 2013

Kicking the Lord out of the church

At a friend's prompting, I attended yesterday's Sunday Assembly (The Guardian chronicled the event). It's fashionable nowadays for atheists to attempt to salvage whatever's deemed good in religion. Alain de Botton even wants to go back to building atheist temples. As if humans have ever built anything but atheist temples, or held anything but atheist worship services! To the eye unforgetful of the simple fact that all gods are of our own making, any temple, shrine, synagogue, church or mosque is an atheist monument. There is barely a need to invent an atheist alternative. The cityscape is, as ever, saturated with atheist sanctuaries.

While it's true that I enjoyed the “sermon" on Dirac's equation, it's no less true that I found the address delivered in last December's Christmas Carol Service at St Paul's Cathedral equally atheistic, humorous and enjoyable. Whether it's Freddie Mercury (“Don't Stop Me Now") and Stevie Wonder (“Superstition"), or Herbert Howells (“A Spotless Rose") and John Tavener (“God Is with Us"), music is music. Whether one attends a spiritual retreat, a party conference, or the Super Bowl, words are words, ritual is ritual, emotional manipulation is emotional manipulation, the money collected is money collected. One cannot escape being religious and atheistic. And, by the way, tautology is the atheistic font of all religion (“I am who I am").

An atheist church can be no better and no worse than any other religious congregation. More reasonable, maybe. More meaningful, not at all. Will I go back?

16 November 2012

Times and means of rapprochement (IV)

In a note on page 341, Gane writes: “Transferability of blame / culpability is primarily attested in cultic contexts: Exod 28:38; Lev 10:17; 16:21-22. But the fact that it also appears in the noncultic setting of 1 Sam 25:24 and 2 Sam 14:9 shows that it is not... foreign to the mundane sphere of life." This statement is problematic on every conceivable level. Exodus 28:38 has nothing to do with the “transferability of blame", as it is perfectly equivalent to Numbers 18:1 and refers to the (unborrowed) Levitical responsibility for the sancta. The “sin offering" of Leviticus 10:17 is the very same as the one in 9:15 - an inaugural, purificatory sacrifice (no iniquity involved, unless one would argue that YHWH's glory was welcomed at the sanctuary with a small dose of ill-defined communal guilt). As a general statement on the purpose of חטאת‎ sacrifices (including those of Leviticus 9 and 16), Moses' words only suggest that they are meant to remove any obstacle to approaching the sacred. As for “the goat unto Azazel", quite a few commentators have stressed the fact that Aaron's confession itself suffices to instantiate the ominous onus to be carried away. Aaron and the sancta bear no guilt, no impurity.

To find any appearance of the “transferability of culpability" in narrative texts is even more preposterous. Both 1 Samuel 25:24 and 2 Samuel 14:9 contain highly rhetorical discourse, designed to persuade a figure of authority into clemency. A similar device is mentioned in Matthew 27:25, yet no amount of hand washing has ever exonerated Pontius Pilate. What's more, the two chapters of Deuteronomistic history are nowhere near suggesting the kind of guilt displacement envisaged by Gane. In the first one, Abigail opens her plea with a clear attempt to substitute herself to her nutty husband as chief of clan (so that she be allowed to negotiate with David on behalf of her entire household). She distances herself from Nabal's behavior, and assumes only the guilt of not having known of David's servants' initial arrival (v. 25). Abigail's gift (beracha, one of the names of the mincha that Jacob offered Esau - cf. Genesis 33:10-11) is to be accepted on her account, as it is her (more or less rhetorical) פשע that requires forgiveness (v. 27-28). Nabal is still to be judged for his egregious insolence, by the precise strike of David's God himself (vv. 26.39), through the felicitous scheming of his considerate wife (v. 19.36-37). Abigail never adopted his liability, only his responsibility. Collateral damage avoided - pissing against the wall decriminalized.

In 2 Samuel 14, the wise woman of Tekoa conjures up a case of manslaughter, for which the Torah provided the right of asylum. In granting his subject's (hypothetical) request, David does not pardon a murderer, but redefines the conditions of asylum. He is in no danger whatsoever of incurring guilt, as judges have always been interpreters, not automaton enforcers of the law. In v. 9, the woman simply offers to bear all the responsibility for the security of her son, which the king quickly counters with his willingness to be personally involved in thwarting any threat to said son (v. 10). David is generally quite inclined towards clemency, even to the point of proffering curses on the rightful avenger of blood, especially when clemency would have been politically expedient (see 2 Samuel 3:27-30 in context).

In his desperate attempt to read “transfer of guilt" into the Tanakh, Gane should have rather resorted to Numbers 30:16. The husband who belatedly nullifies his wife's oath is said to bear her guilt. But this would have only served to reaffirm what we've found already: forgiveness is never transfer of guilt in the Levitical world. Forgiveness extinguishes guilt (just as punishment does, with different results).

01 October 2012

To see, hear and taste

A nice, self-forgetful afternoon at The Courtauld Gallery. A self-indulgent, savory dinner at Sitar. Indian food cooked and served with French precision, glazed with sitar music. The untiring detail of a 14th century ivory diptych, the unforgiving eye of Lucian Freud.

I am glad to report that our second visit at the Royal Albert Hall, at the end of August (for Whitacre's Proms debut), was a happier affair than our first. The public was there for the music. Eric was there for the show (his music in his wake). I agree with this reviewer, when he writes that “the most extraordinary sounds came in American composer Edwin London's ingeniously simple re-imagining of Bach's harmonisation of a Lutheran chorale", and with this reviewer, when she declares herself unimpressed by the evening's premiers.

I do promise to finish my discussion of Gane's book. The aroma of incense beckons.

24 July 2012

Speaking truth to stupid

I've spent the last three weeks, since the latest post, catching a cold and passing it on to my wife, watching in bewilderment the disgraceful show many Romanian politicians and some Romanian media figures are putting on these days, discovering the new, controversial HBO series The Newsroom, taking a short trip to the Jurassic Coast, meeting old friends for the first time, and savoring leisurely, at dusk, the exquisite French food one finds at Thierry Tomasin's decadent Angelus. And yes, we have booked tickets to another Royal Albert Hall event - the late night, late August Whitacre concert. Fingers crossed.

The current Romanian PM is, ironically, a former prosecutor who has recently been shown to have plagiarized his PhD dissertation and who has orchestrated a parliamentary putsch. His actions and complete lack of moral rectitude serve to remind much of Europe that my native country is still a fledgling democracy, caught between its communist past (single-party politics, nationalist demagoguery, vilification of opposition) and its seemingly unending present as a banana republic (kleptocracy, endemic corruption, a disabled justice system). By the way, a comparison between recent developments in both Romania and Paraguay (the June ousting of president Lugo) would probably be quite revealing. 

The real drama, though, is not that those in power don't spend much time in front of a truthful mirror (part of the Romanian press has laudably reflected correctly the nature of intentions and machinations on both sides of the political dispute, and the real stakes), but that a worrying majority of the public, old and young, has not had a chance to learn anything about democracy and to internalize its values. Many still respond to puerile dichotomies (one figure or another is always distributed in the role of “the embodiment of evil"), to ritualistic violence (in language or actual public gesticulation), to a carnivalesque reversal of semantics (the thief brags about his honesty, the cowardly accuses others of his own unmentionable sin). It remains to be seen if speaking truth to stupid actually helps.