Prometheus

I have been puzzling about how to react to Jonathan’s recent squall of fury. Long story short: I didn’t like it. I’m not going to get into the politics of the 2016 election, because as I’ve written elsewhere, I think it would be tacky for me to opine about the politics of a country to which I am not a citizen. But what I will say is this: when Jonathan characterizes the people who voted against his own preferred candidate as

people who like open carry and beating minorities and LGBT people to a pulp because they’ve—y’know—had enough, and reached out to those who hate “elites” with a bitter passion while being unable to spell or think clearly

and for whom

shootin’ lib’ruls or other wrong-thinkers

is a sport and who live in places where

the open presence of military-grade weapons, hateful rhetoric, or a particular brand of religious culture

make them places where, he imagines (with disturbing relish), the aforementioned troglodytes are

huddling in [their] basements wondering, increasingly hysterically, if [their] children will make it home safely

all of which renders them unworthy of

help, or infrastructure, or even respect, or medical care, or a safety net, or environmental protections, or safe food standards, or Medicare, from the invasive U.S. government which they find so threatening  

etc., I’m not too happy.

This post indulges in the same tough-guy posturing and eliminationist rhetoric as right-wing rage radio. It is the very opposite of whatever is meant by “humane letters,” dehumanizing the people it deals with and proudly announcing its refusal to understand them. It turns political opponents into political enemies, into vermin fit only for extinction. It’s bad enough when people email me stuff like this; it galls me to see this hateful thing squatting there when you dial up Dial ‘M’, a blog I have spent more than a decade trying to make a welcoming place for anyone with so much as a passing interest in “music, musicology, and related matters” — though I realize that the “related matters” part has occupied more and more space of late.

Of course, it is not my blog. It is our blog, Jonathan’s and mine. In recent years I’ve posted more than Jonathan, but it’s not as if I’m the boss around here; it’s more like we’re roommates. We both write what we want or have to, and we have figured out how to get along. I know I have written stupid, intemperate things that have caused Jonathan to wince and grit his teeth. On this occasion, at any rate, the shoe is on the other foot.

In the run-up to the November election, someone asked me “do you actually know anyone who voted for Trump?” I do, sort of. I’m pretty sure a few of the guys at my boxing club voted for Trump … or perhaps they voted against Hillary? I don’t know, because we don’t talk about politics. We’re there to work on our footwork (still, for me, somewhat impaired by the broken leg) and not to talk politics. I don’t know these guys outside the context of the gym; I wouldn’t know them at all if we didn’t share a love of the sweet science. I do know they are human beings who care about their families and who, by their lights, are trying to do right by them, just as I am trying to do right by mine. They are patient, encouraging, and generous with their knowledge when an aging, unathletic, thick-around-the-middle college professor comes in looking to learn how to box. They do not treat me as an outsider, even though I am, let’s face it. So if one of them showed up in one of my classes, how could I fail to show them the same respect?

Jonathan’s post seems to be saying that the time is now past for this sort of can’t-we-all-get-along kumbayaism. I don’t think it is. Or at least, I hope it isn’t. If it really is too late for understanding and sympathy, then I no longer recognize the country I have been living in for decades now, and I don’t know what kind of future it holds for me or my children. Which I guess is how Jonathan is feeling these days.

The one cheering thing I have noticed since the election is that there is a positive spirit among some of my students: a will not to be overcome, a will not to be a victim, a will to keep building something, just generally a Will. It is not some cheesy fantasy of La Resistance (puh-leeze). It is a spirit that doesn’t necessarily have to do with politics as such; it is more basic than that.

What is that spirit?

I’ll put it in musical terms. This semester I’m teaching the second half of our undergraduate music history sequence, and I started out the class by talking about Beethoven. What I wanted to talk about was less Beethoven himself and more whatever it means when we say something is “Beethovenian.” Beethovenian is a place in the imagination, a certain idea of what it is to be a human being, the Promeathean will to sacrifice and endure and create. I was trying to express what it is about Beethoven that has so stirred the imaginations of music-lovers over the past two hundred years. And part of what is “Beethovenian” has to do with the spirit of the man himself, and how that spirit is communicated in his music. I taught the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, the Eroica (yeah, I know, real original), and led off by quoting a letter from Beethoven to Franz Gerhard Wegeler: “I will seize Fate by the throat; it will certainly not bend or crush me completely — Oh, it would be so lovely to live a thousand lives.” Beethovenian is the image of Prometheus chained to his rock, condemned every day to have an eagle tear out his liver and every night to have it grow back in order to allow the torture to continue, day after day for all time.

I like to imagine that actually Prometheus decides to let his liver grow back every time. The eagle is puzzled by this choice, and, once his delight at an easy meal has worn off, the eagle discovers that he, too, is chained to that rock. He has to come back every day until Prometheus is dead, and Prometheus won’t die. (This isn’t actually in the original myth: this is just my cracked-out fan theory.) So one day, the eagle asks Prometheus, why do you persist? Why this stubbornness? Why do you insist on growing anew each day? And Prometheus says, in response:

“Because fuck you. That’s why.”

That is the spirit I feel among my students, and that I would like to be a part of, thick-middled and middle-aged though I am. That Beethovenian spirit.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to Prometheus

  1. Tara Browner says:

    Easy to be so forgiving of Trump voters when you are a white guy who teaches at a university with a decent salary and health insurance that isn’t about to vaporize. You won’t be the one losing the right to an abortion, or thrown out of your health care plan because of a pre-existing condition, or making less money than a man who does the same job. And no one in North Dakota will call you a red nigger cunt for saying NO to a pipeline that threatens to destroy the water supply of your Lakota brothers and sisters. What you have is known as white privilege, and boy do you have it in spades.

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