Friday, February 16, 2007

An Embarrasment of Riches

A few months ago, on CBC's Ideas, I heard a conductor say that there was no place for Beethoven anymore, because it was too grandiose, given recent experiences in the West. No doubt he was talking about the Holocaust. Apparently he thought that music should now reflect the uncertainty and embarrasment that Europeans feel about recent events in their history.

What this indicates is only that they do not understood the historical context of the Holocaust. For millenia, genocide has been something of an international sport to every race and nation which found itself in the position to pursue it. The Old Testament includes long dreary passages which depict the ancient Hebrews pursuing the extermination of other tribes whose sole crime was to be in their path. Fortunately these accounts are, in all likelihood, historically innacurate. The Jews in Babylon, having been expelled from Israel, felt the need to create a myth of themselves as conquering heroes. But the very occurence of such myths says much about the ethic of the time and of most of the history since. If you had the power, you slaughtered everyone in your path who might be able to oppose you, and took the rest as slaves.

Genocide was practiced by the Turks against the Armenians, by the Russians in progroms against the Jews, by the Americans against the Natives, and by the English against the Irish--to name a recent few. None were particularly successful, because these efforts were not particularly well organized, and the technology for mass extermination did not yet exist. Mostly it was done by neglect, or by a sort of backhanded strategy, because killing a lot of people deliberately took a lot of work and resources. But the invention of automatic weapons changed all that. It became possible to kill a lot of people with a few guns.

But then, of course, there was the problem of corpse disposal. If you were going to kill that many people, you had to get rid of the bodies, and the best way to do that was to cremate them. And if you're going to cremate them, you might as well industrialize the murder as well, and... well you can see where this is going. And we did, in the Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis took an old pursuit and modernized it. They built death factories. Their innovation was not the goal, only the means to bring it about.

But doing it that efficiently, and that systematically, they got caught. Finally, someone got caught, red handed, in the act, and there was no denying what they were up to, and we had the people responsible, and hard evidence that they'd done it. There was no denying the intent. But again, the intent was nothing new. What was new was that someone actually defined that intent and set out to do it in a systematic fashion, so there was no doubt what they were up to. And for perhaps the first time, they were the only ones in the vicinity doing it (at last, none of the observers were inclined to wink and look away.) The act was very clear, and stood in stark contrast to accepted practice elsewhere (well, almost--Stalin's mass starvation of the Ukraine comes to mind.)

Still, only the methods and the situation were new. The monster revealed in Nazi Germany had been around a long, long time. But the type of horror and disgust that it aroused were also new. Many people in the West thought that they had encountered an entirely new demon. They thought that this demon had appeared for the first time in Germany, aided and abetted by other Europeans who had cooperated. They thought, for this reason, that this demon was uniquely European, and that something in Europe was uniquely responsible for creating it. This strikes me as tragically naive. The supposedly learned people who hold this opinion are stunned and apalled by a fact that was common knowledge even to most of the unlettered peasantry of the Dark Ages: the demonic potential that lays coiled within human nature itself.

I find nothing particularly significant in the fact that the Germans were the ones who got caught in the act--they just happened to systematize it first. Nor is there anything particularly significant in that the Jews were the target--although the fact that the Jews were the target yet again is worthy of notice (the ongoing spectacle of anti-semitism is a testament to human stupidity and venality.) Nor do I find it particularly significant that it happened in Europe. Far more significant was that the people who did it got caught, condemned even by their own children, and that the whole episode earned the contempt even of the very nation found guilty of it. That is new. Prior to this, everyone who had ever been engaged in this sort of thing denied it, downplayed it when denial didn't work, and were generally let off the hook even when that failed by other nations who were, usually, indulging in the same dirty practices.

Oscar Wilde said "All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." The human potential for evil should not be news. And it must also be understood that we have an equal potential for good. The German persecution of the Jews was old news; in 70 AD, the Romans razed Jeruselem to the ground--but for a few stone walls in the desert, no one would have known it was ever there. It has not stopped since. The Ashkenazy Jews have been subject to a level of persecution for two thousand years which no other race or people has ever suffered. But what is new is that Western Civilization has recognized this fact, and has vowed, for the most part, never to let it happen again. This is progress.

Beethoven said, essentially, that his life told nothing, but his music said everything. Those who are too timid to play his music apparently assume that it was based upon a naive view of the world which has failed. In fact, if anyone is naive, it is the people who believe this; I doubt that one could claim that Beethoven was unaware of the miseries of life or the faults of humanity. We have not failed. Against the grandeur of the Universe, even the music of Beethoven seems timid and understated. Play his music. We have not finished. We have not even begun.