Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror

I’ve written about René Girard’s ideas once before, to try my hand at identifying mimetic crises in the world of George R. R. Martin. Today I’d like to apply Girard’s ideas to another world in which people are driven to conflict over small differences and personal slights.

(Rather than attempting to explain Girard’s ideas in depth, I leave concessions to the reader, and point instead to discussions from the Raven Foundation and the IEP. If you’re looking for a quick introduction to the life of Girard, take a look at his obituary in the Times.)

Girard presents a model of human conflict that is Shakespearean, not Marxist. That is, he thinks that people are not engaged in class struggle, in which proletarians unite against the bourgeoisie. Instead, people reserve horror and resentment for people most like themselves. Consider the origin of the ancient grudge laid out in the opening line of Romeo and Juliet: “Two houses, both alike in dignity…” The Montagues and Capulets fight not because they’re so different but because they’re so alike.

The closer we are to other people—Girard means this in multiple dimensions—the more intensely that mimetic contagion will spread. Alternatively, competition is fiercer the more that competitors resemble each other. When we’re not so different from people around us, it’s irresistible to become obsessed about beating others. Girard’s framework vastly improves Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of small differences.” It’s also a framework for Kissinger’s quip: “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”

Where should we expect Girard’s predictions for mimetic crises to run most rampant? At places where values are confused and people are much the same. To me, that description best fits one place in particular: the American college.

In the US, where I attended college, nearly everyone starts undergrad in the same way: After graduating from high school at age 18. When they start school, few people have a clear sense of the career path they’ll set on; it’s rare to meet a person who has high confidence of what they’ll end up doing, and even rarer to see someone who actually follows that plan. Instead, people happily confess that they don’t know what they’ll do, and that they’ll figure it out by trying different classes and by joining clubs, sports teams, fraternities, and so on.

None of this is bad, really. Unless you’re a Girardian.

It’s hard to construct a more perfect incubator for mimetic contagion than the American college campus. Most 18-year-olds are not super differentiated from each other. By construction, whatever distinctions any does have are usually earned through brutal, zero-sum competitions. These tournament-type distinctions include: SAT scores at or near perfection; being a top player on a sports team; gaining master status from chess matches; playing first instrument in state orchestra; earning high rankings in Math Olympiad; and so on, culminating in gaining admission to a particular college.

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs. The biggest source of mimetic pressures are the classes. Everyone starts out by taking the same intro classes; those seeking distinction throw themselves into the hardest classes, or seek tutelage from star professors, and try to earn the highest grades.

There’s very little external intermediation, instead all competitive dynamics are internally mediated. The prizes are so obvious. The big companies that come to career fairs soothingly assure high-status jobs; the speakers at convocation tell us that we too will become as successful as them one day; our peers hold leadership positions at clubs, get internships at exciting companies, and earn those chances to have lunch with the university’s president.

The lack of external mediation explains why objects of desire on campus can be seen to have such high worth. And why certain leadership positions on campus are heavily fought over, even though they don’t seem to have much influence. It also helps to explain why so many people enter into only a handful of fields.

Mimetic contagion magnifies small fights by making people focus on each other. These processes follow their own logic until they reach conclusions that look so extreme to the outside world. Once internal rivalries are sorted out, people coalesce into groups united against something foreign. These tendencies help explain why events on campus so often make the news—it seems like every other week we see some campus activity being labeled a “witch hunt,” “riot,” or something else that involves violence, implied or explicit. I don’t care to link to these events, they’re so easy to find. It’s interesting to see that academics are increasingly becoming the target of student activities. The Girardian terror devours its children first, who have tolerated or fanned mimetic contagion for so long.

Girard’s main mechanism for renunciation of metaphysical desire doesn’t seem to have a big presence on most campuses. I think that’s also the case for secular society in general. (As an aside, I’ve started to become curious if the rationality movement, broadly defined, is the secular answer to Girardian renunciation.) I invite Girard scholars to tell me how or if he saw secular ways for conflict to be resolved.

No one has ever asked me how one should escape mimetic contagion on campus. Still here’s my answer: If one must go to college, I advise cultivating smaller social circles. Instead of going to class and preparing for exams, to go to the library and just read. Finally, not to join a fraternity or finance club, but to be part of a knitting circle or hiking group instead.

***

René Girard’s most famous student did not take the threat of mimetic contagion lightly when he ran a company. When Peter Thiel was the CEO of PayPal, he tried to minimize mimetic contagion, possibly because the company was hiring a bunch of kids who’ve been socialized in elite colleges. Keith Rabois has recounted that as a manager, Thiel allowed everyone to work on one thing and one thing only. Rabois couches in terms of ridding distractions, but it’s clear that this is good Girardian practice. People will not feel mimetic envy if they cannot look at the work of others.

Thiel’s comments on management more generally are worth reading. The Girardian themes are clear if one looks for them: “If you were a sociopathic boss who wanted to create trouble for your employees, the formula you would follow would be to tell two people to do the exact same thing. That’s a guaranteed formula for creating conflict. If you’re not a sociopath, you want to be very careful to avoid this.”

From the same interview, here are his entertaining remarks on business schools: “The conceit of the MBA is that you don’t need to have any substance at all. It’s just this management science, and you can apply that equally well in a software company or an oil drilling company or a fashion company or a rocket company. That’s the bias I’d want us to cut against. So for the degree, people would learn substantive things and then on the side you’d pick up some business skills. But you wouldn’t treat the business degree as the central thing.

“I think one challenge a lot of business schools have is they end up attracting students who are very extroverted and have very low conviction, and they put them in this hothouse environment for a few years—at the end of which, a large number of people go into whatever was the last trendy thing to do. They’ve done studies at Harvard Business School where they’ve found that they largest cohort always went into the wrong field. So in 1989, they all went to work for Michael Milken, a year or two before he went to jail. They were never interested in Silicon Valley expect for 1999, 2000. The last decade their interest was housing and private equity.”

***

I haven’t watched much TV recently, but the new show I’ve liked best is *Big Little Lies* on HBO. Rich suburban moms, with desires mediated by their children, are incited towards violence against each other in gorgeous Monterey, California. Who can resist?

The parents have drawn their battle lines by the first episode. The Girardian themes get heavier and heavier throughout the series, until the astonishing finale, which culminates in violent murder. Mimetic contagion races through the group of mothers, who battle over progressively higher stakes, until the show ends with communal violence against a mysterious outsider, the death of whom unites the community in frolicking harmony. The murder takes place during a masquerade-like public performance, over flames, alcohol, and music; the perpetrators each have a hand in violence; scenes of a beating are interspersed with the breaking of Pacific waves on rocks in all directions. That murder unites feuding groups under a lie, and previously lingering questions are papered over, without resolution nor need of one.

Isn’t this a fairly compelling depiction of a Girardian war and peace? I want to only gesture at another question: The parents make every effort to spare pain from the children, but isn’t it the case that the kids see things more clearly than the adults?

I liked the show a lot. Apart from the Girardian themes, the shots of Monterey are beautiful, the characters are compelling, and there are many funny moments. Do watch.

***

Here’s an article about how literal memes spread on campus. Apparently many colleges have Facebook meme groups sharing jokes particular to that school. The dankness of one’s meme reflects the high quality of the school.

Elsewhere in meme culture on campus, Harvard recently rescinded offers to at least ten incoming freshmen because they shared memes that were either sexually explicit or racist. This story is just too good. The college set up a Facebook group for the Class of 2021. People started to befriend each other and created a meme group. Unsatisfied with the lightheartedness of most memes, some members started a “dark” group, which created these unacceptable memes. To gain membership in this dark group, first one had to post a risqué meme in the general group.

It’s amazing that even before they met each other, the class of ’21 was already testing its members’ limits, sorting themselves into elite sections, and trying to outdo each other in explicitness. Instead of being focused on real goals, their gaze is directed at each other, and each concentrates on one-upping the previous go. Internally every move is so compelling; externally the situation turns too extreme.

***

If one is a Girardian, then there is perhaps no greater catastrophe than the growing tendency of the American meritocracy to be incubated in elite colleges. Is it not worth fretting that the people running the country are coming in higher numbers from these hothouse environments at a young age, where one is inflamed to compete over everything and where tiny symbolic disputes seem like life and death struggles? How much of the governing class has fully adopted this attitude, and to what extent can we see our recent political problems to be manifestations of this tendency?

I want to make a point that I’ve brought up once before: Because acts of youth are more easily recalled, our future elites will be made up of people who’ve managed to keep their records unsullied. What happens when most records of our life are accessible via Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or blogs? I think that makes it so that our future leaders will be selected for whether they were willing to be really boring in their 20s, who have no recorded indiscretions that might derail a Senate confirmation. Are these the people we want to be governed by?

I liked this piece by Mihir Desai: “The Trouble with Optionality,” published in the Harvard Crimson: “The Yale undergraduate goes to work at McKinsey for two years, then comes to Harvard Business School, then graduates and goes to work Goldman Sachs and leaves after several years to work at Blackstone. Optionality abounds!

“This individual has merely acquired stamps of approval and has acquired safety net upon safety net. These safety nets don’t end up enabling big risk-taking—individuals just become habitual acquirers of safety nets. The comfort of a high-paying job at a prestigious firm surrounded by smart people is simply too much to give up.”

***

I think mimetic contagion is worst in US colleges. In Canada, people apply to major in certain subjects; if they earn admission, it’s not so easy to switch, so there’s less of this intellectual loitering one finds on American campuses. And when I attended a German university, students told me that German 18-year-olds don’t usually go directly to university after high school. Instead, they take a year off to travel, work or volunteer. These experiences create difference and maturity, thus better inoculating people against mimetic contagion.

I wonder about graduate schools in the US. I think they’re more free from Girardian conflict, though I’m not sure by how much. The place where one expects people to be most susceptible to mimetic contagion—business school—is composed of people with somewhat distinctive starting points and end goals. Those who start MBA programs usually vary more by age and have a clearer idea of what they want, at least relative to undergrads.

I submit that anyone who accepts the ideas of Girard should be extremely wary of being in anything resembling the college environment. It might be too much to ask high school students to read I See Satan Fall Like Lightning or Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. But anyone who’s familiar with these works ought to feel grand Girardian horror to contemplate exposure to these dynamics in college-like corporate environments or graduate schools.

An unhappy study shows that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress, and that one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.

***

The two best novelistic modelers of mimetic desire are Marcel Proust and Stendhal. (And as I’ve written before, George R. R. Martin isn’t bad either.) I feel that I’d have said this even if the triangular desire in these novels weren’t pointed out by Girard himself.

Having Girard in the back of one’s mind is helpful for reading Proust in particular. His novels are like agonized letters. At first I found his transitions bewildering and his anecdotes too tedious to follow. Afterwards I felt a craving for his daily epiphanies, which really cannot be rivaled in their acuity.

It’s fun to read Proust with a particularly Girardian question in mind: Does our narrator ever have spontaneous desires of his own? Each episode of his various obsessions starts with someone else pointing out that a particular person is worth acquaintance or a piece of art is worth appreciation. The best examples are the actress La Berma and the painter Elstir. Once someone whispers to our narrator that he is in the presence of an exceptional talent, he feels the greatest sense of worship. If there are any instances in which our narrator comes to desire without a mediator, I’ve yet to find them.

At some other point I’d like to write about Girard and Stendhal, as well as more generally the validity of extracting lessons of mimetic contagion from literature.

***

To me, America’s greatest feature is that it allows people to embrace mimesis or free themselves from it. Society allows people of both types to thrive. It’s not like in other countries, where people are forced to socialize in certain ways or find it too easy to extricate themselves from society.

I want to make clear that mimetic tendencies aren’t all bad. Two types of people have the greatest capacity for learning: Those who are intensely mimetic and those who are incapable of mimesis.

Thiel gets at the learning capacity of the latter when he makes a point about Aspergers in the Valley: “If you’re less sensitive to social cues, then you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue these activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them.”

Meanwhile, those who are susceptible to mimesis can be excellent learners too. They’re better able to pick up social cues than anyone else, and they have a greater capacity to please. Mimetic ability manifests in “conscientiousness,” such a popular trait these days. They have a clearer sense of who successful models are, and they have the greatest eagerness to learn from them.

I submit that the key to success is to be aware of one’s tendencies, either to be very mimetic or not at all. Then one can harness these tendencies to maximize learning, and not spend all one’s time indulging solitary whims or be governed by mimetic contagion. It’s possible that the greatest possible amount of learning comes as a result of fluctuating between these extremes. And I feel that kind of fluctuation is possible only in America, not really anywhere else I’ve lived—Canada, China, Germany, and now Hong Kong.

***

A few last thoughts:

If you’re looking for an overview of René Girard’s work, I recommend Wolfgang Palaver’s primer.

The best case against my suggestion that college generates intense Girardian terror is the fact that most people remember their college years fondly. I concede that my analysis may be badly wrong. First, that I’m in error, in my analysis of Girard; second, that Girard is in error, in his analysis of the human condition; third, that more people are immune to mimetic contagion that this piece suggests; or fourth, that the warm light of memory makes people forget about these dynamics, so that they remember the peaks of what made college fun instead.

For academic year 2017-18, the school I attended—Rochester—will charge a $67,708 to incoming freshmen. At least I think that’s the case when I tally fees from this page. Curiously, the school offers breakdown of costs, but not their sum. That’s confusing because some fees are mandatory while others are not. That’s not the extent of total fees; the school mandates people to purchase health insurance, and if you take the one offered by the university, a freshman’s charge comes to a cool $70,000 a year. Other private schools are drifting to $70,000. For the upcoming academic year, Harvard’s billed costs are $65,609, Yale is at $66,900, Princeton is at $67,100. I’m sure you can find less well-ranked schools that present a higher bill.

Here’s an observation from Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora: ”One may admit to pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, and laziness… There is only one capital sin no one admits to: envy.” Most New Yorker cartoons are Girardian, this one especially so: “It’s not enough that dogs succeed, cats must also fail.”

I’ll end with a quote from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning: “Mimetic desire enables us to escape from the animal realm. It is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it. Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.

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Californian Dreams

I watched two movies recently, Hail, Caesar! and La La Land, both of which are celebrations of Los Angeles. They made me reminisce about the year I spent living in San Francisco, and prompted me to think more deeply about California as a whole. In particular, I wonder if California felt so odd (to me) because of the winner-take-all effects of tech and entertainment. What happens to the way that people think when two of its big industries have extreme blockbuster dynamics?

I have three questions:

  1. California’s economy is massive, but two industries dominate popular imagination: tech in Silicon Valley/San Francisco and entertainment in Hollywood/Los Angeles. Far fewer than 1 percent of all new stars and startups can expect to break out every year; those that do find terrific success. How do these dynamics change the culture of the state and the way that people live, if at all?
  1. California is the land of sunny optimism. But one detects, in so much of the creative output, a strain of melancholy, or at least ennui. You hear it in the Beach Boys; see it in both Hail Caesar and La La Land; read it in Philip K. Dick, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and so many others. What do people have to worry about in the land of gold and gentle weather?
  1. In a country of immigrants, California seems to be the state of immigrants. It’s not just that many are of Asian or Latin American descent; in the beginning (i.e. about a century and a half ago), California was significantly populated with migrants-twice-over who came from the eastern U.S. Within the self-selected group of immigrants, these people were willing to decamp once more to search for gold or fame. If the U.S. is the country of immigrants, is California then the most American of all states?

I’m not sure that I can answer these questions directly, but here are a few thoughts around them.

***

Every movie can be thought of as a startup. They both begin as ideas in notepads. Creators pitch them to studios and VCs for funding. It’s up to the creator to sell the vision and recruit others who believe in them. Most startups and movies break even or lose money; a few become massively scalable successes that are economically and culturally important for years, perhaps decades.1 They have many differences, but they share at least these characteristics.

That’s from the perspective of creators and founders. For employees of startups and movie productions, there are similarities as well. Young people toil, not always in great positions, but they can always be on the lookout for other opportunities. It’s expected to be passionate about what you do. Things change in a big way if you meet someone willing to help you. (From one of the big numbers in La La Land: “Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know; the one to finally lift you off the ground… if you’re the someone ready to be found.”) Or people are not so fortunate. Tens of thousands of dreamers move to Hollywood every year, but only a few become stars.

One tangible difference between startups and movies is that the latter needs a team to assemble for a much shorter period of time. A more interesting difference is an intangible one: While both are blockbuster industries, one can argue that Hollywood has a more zero-sum attitude than Silicon Valley does. Annual consumer spending on movies and music is fairly stable, which means that studios are fighting over a non-growing share of peoples’ budgets. Meanwhile, only a few movies become blockbusters, making competition for that handful of roles more severe for actors. The world of startups doesn’t seem so zero-sum.

The zero-sum competitiveness of Hollywood is one reason that Peter Thiel disliked Sorkin’s The Social Network. He wrote that the movie is more emblematic of Hollywood than the positive-sum thinking that’s more common in Silicon Valley.

***

What accounts for the strain of melancholy in Californian optimism?

It’s warm and sunny in both Hail Caesar and La La Land. (When I saw La La Land on a snowy day, I thought that the director was playing a cruel joke to divide the movie in seasons: Los Angeles in the winter and summer scenes looked identical.) But you can pick out the constant doubt and deep unhappiness of the main characters. The lyrics of the Beach Boys are sunny too; but why do they sound so sad? Maybe California is less happy than it looks.

Is it because the sunsets in California are so singularly beautiful? It is darkness when the greatest point of beauty has passed. Do the long shadows of autumn drag themselves over our mood especially heavily because they bring darkness but not cold?

Does desperation accompany its natural optimism because homelessness is so plausible? La La Land’s opening number is about how California will always have another day of sun. The mild, warm weather makes that condition far less punishing than in the northeast. One certainly encounters many examples of it in San Francisco. Homelessness won’t likely affect most tech workers, but even for them the prospect of sudden, faultless unemployment looms large. Will they be able to stay in their very expensive apartments for long?

Are the landscapes of Northern California so stark and breathtaking because they’re far too dry? The Golden Gate is placid, and is that because the yellow hills and brackish water don’t allow life to thrive?

***

I haven’t spent much time in LA, but I loved my brief visit. It’s the only place in which a stranger at a party remarked to me: “I didn’t like my face, so I changed it, with plastic surgery.” One would not find such candidness in San Francisco or in New York.

Werner Herzog has great things to say about the city. He lives there now, having moved from SF’s Pac Heights neighborhood, where I used to live. It’s worth quoting him at length:

“Los Angeles is the city in America with the most substance, even if it’s raw, uncouth and sometimes quite bizarre. Wherever you look is an immense depth, a tumult that resonates with me. New York is more concerned with finance than anything else. It doesn’t create culture, only consumes it; most of what you find in New York comes from elsewhere. Things actually get done in Los Angeles.

“Look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and a wild excitement of intense dreams opens up; it has more horizons than any other place. There is a great deal of industry in the city and a real working class; I also appreciate the vibrant presence of the Mexicans. In the last half century every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California, including the Free Speech Movement and the acceptance of gays and lesbians as an integral part of a dignified society, computers and the Internet, and—thanks to Hollywood—the collective dreams of the entire world. A fascinating density of things exists there like nowhere else in the world.”

***

Here’s something I’ve come to appreciate recently: There’s a world of difference between value-creation and mistake-avoidance.

In the corporate context, that’s the difference between top line and bottom line activities. The first is about generating revenue and the latter is about cutting costs. Upside is limitless for salespeople, while the beancounters have only so much to cut.

Let me sharpen the point with reference to writing. Academic writing is often plodding and obtuse; I submit that it’s because academics are more concerned with showing that they’re avoiding errors rather than trying to communicate incisive ideas. The opposite of academic articles may be something like blog posts; the latter may be fuzzy, poorly-defined, or outright mistaken, but that’s tolerable so long as they introduce fresh ideas.

I feel that California is a place that better embodies the top line mindset and that New York is dominated by the bottom line mindset. California, venture capital, and movie studios are trying to pick the winner that makes irrelevant their losses. New York is complicated, but I want to argue that it’s finance-driven, and exemplified by the practice of insurance in particular. Insurance is about collecting a steady stream of revenue—on the liabilities side—without making a catastrophically wrong investment that wipes out half the value of assets. (A more colorful way to put it is to pick up nickels in front of a steamroller.) Venture capital tolerates mistakes in the search for a winner; insurance spends most effort avoiding big mistakes.

Finding brilliant successes and avoiding catastrophic failures are very different activities. Both are important, but they require different mindsets. I’ve found it useful to distinguish the two in nearly everything I do and see. Maybe that distinction goes some way to explaining why California and New York feel so different.

***

I don’t know much about California’s history, but I do know that a lot of people moved to the state in the 19th century gold rush. After gold, there came a silver rush, an oil boom, aviation, entertainment, and tech. I’m stealing a friend’s phrase: “Manifest destiny continues, not only through physical space.”

Each of these are winner-take-all industries. So you see, blockbuster dynamics have continually infused the state. Maybe we should expect that the people who were willing to move to California to be some of the most ambitious and can-do people in the world. And that subsequent generations have been nurtured with the same values as people who worked in other winner-take-all industries.

Or maybe not. Northern California offers the most outrageous examples of nimbyism, which is the total antithesis to a culture that accepts change and risk. The government doesn’t seem so can-do either. In eastern SF, replacing the Bay Bridge was initially estimated to cost $250 million; it was completed nearly 20 years later, for $6.4 billion, or a run-up of roughly 2,500 percent. In northern SF, the government has spent more time and about as much money (in real terms) building an access tunnel to the Golden Gate Bridge than it did building the bridge. California’s high-speed rail will be one of the slowest high-speed rail systems in the world, at the highest cost per mile of track. No wonder the state’s finances are a mess.

Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour highlights California as a particularly glamorous icon. It’s always attracted the ambitious. But for all the innovations of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, I wonder if people have lost some of the risk-taking tendencies of the past. Longtime residents and Uber drivers are always eager to let people know that the city isn’t like it once was. Perhaps they’re right, and the city’s startup scene is imprinted with a little bit more of the East Coast finance culture than techs would like to admit.

And maybe this is the right place to cite that, under generous definitions, about 10 percent of the San Francisco workforce is directly involved in the tech industry. That figure is closer to 20 percent for the Bay Area as a whole. And the state may not be attracting as many migrants. California’s net migration was negative between 2003 and 2014, losing about a million more people than it gained through migration. Instead of moving from Oklahoma to California, traffic may now be more common the other way. While IT and entertainment are big sectors, together they account for only around 10 percent of state GDP—though it’s possible to argue for a bigger share under different definitions. The two big blockbuster industries may not have that big of an impact in the day-to-day lives of most Californians.

But if they do, then maybe that helps to explain a bit of the melancholy in the culture and why those who were once ahead have tried to lock in their gains.

***

(Picture I took last year, off Highway 1. Does the California coast look so calm because the dryness doesn’t allow for a lot of life to thrive?)

A few last notes:

  • I’d like to read a book about California. Not a fiction nor a work of poetry by a Californian author; instead I’m looking for a history of the state as a whole. Any recommendations?
  • Right now, Seattle is the part of the country I’d most like to visit. Going purely off the descriptions of Cryptonomicon, it seems like geek heaven. Is it California-lite, with its own set of tech giants and blockbuster dynamics?
  • I loved both Hail, Caesar! and La La Land while I was watching them. Upon reflection, I liked Hail, Caesar! more and La La Land less. Both films are excellently reviewed by Richard Brody: “The Coen Brothers’ Marvelous ‘Hail, Caesar!’” and “The Empty Exertions of ‘La La Land.’

Thanks to MG, EW, PS, SG, and AN for discussions of these ideas.

1. Thanks especially to Michael Gibson for elaboration.

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The life of Philip Glass

I picked up Philip Glass’s memoir not because I’m very familiar with his music, but because I’d heard that he drove taxis and worked the odd plumbing job before he was well-known. I know of few other people in the classical music world who’ve taken a similar path, so I thought that this would be an interesting account of a life in the arts.

I ended up being far more impressed with it than I expected. Words without Music is written simply, winningly, without much commentary on music. And that’s just fine because we get to read about Glass’s very interesting life. (I’ll share a few excerpts below.)

Glass didn’t work just as a taxi driver and as a (self-taught) plumber. He also worked in a steel factory, as a gallery assistant, and as a furniture mover. He continued doing these jobs until the age of 41, when a commission from the Netherlands Opera decisively freed him from having to drive taxis. Just in time, too, as he describes an instance when he came worryingly close to being murdered in his own cab. The book offers many other interesting details, e.g. deciding to attend the University of Chicago at age 15, inviting a blind and homeless musician to live with him for a year, hitchhiking through Iran before it was closed to Americans and Afghanistan before it was invaded by the Soviets.

These biographical details are manifestations of a quality I admire. Glass never needed much convincing to drop everything in his life to go on a risky venture. I’m not familiar with the many plot twists in his life, and found the book engaging because I had no idea what new adventure he was going to go on next. It’s astonishing how open-minded he is. Consider: His decision to go to India was based entirely on seeing a striking illustration in a random book he grabbed off a friend’s shelf. In addition, he never hesitated to go into personal debt, at times quite steep, because his music couldn’t wait. The book is filled with instances of him saying “sure, when?” to improbable proposals without dwelling on their costs.

He seemed uninterested in stabilizing his position with more regular income. He never took up an honorary conductor position. He never ensconced himself in a plush conservatory professorship. And he didn’t even apply for grants because he didn’t like that they imposed terms.

Glass is either oblivious to conventions or fond of ignoring them. He mentions a few times that he was born with an “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” gene. There’s often reason to distrust these proclamations, but I did enjoying cataloguing his contrarianism. Other performers may look down on amplifiers, but he adapted them no less to the opera house. Other musicians may revere figures like Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger, but he rebelled and talked back to them. Other composers may scoff off film soundtrack commissions, but he tried them out and with success. Other music students may spend their Juilliard prize monies to practice and compose, but he bought a motorcycle so that he can ride around the country. When people made fun of him for appearing in a whiskey ad, he retorted: “It seemed to me that people who didn’t have to sell out… must have had rich parents.”

Here is a short clip of “In the Upper Room,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp and performed by the Ballet de Lorraine.

Now some promised excerpts. These are passages I found striking.

Being able to visualize: My father taught me to play mental chess. I would be with him in the car and he would say, “Knight to Bishop’s 3” and I’d say, “Pawn to Queen 3.” We went through a game together and I learned to visualize chess. I was probably seven or eight years old and I could already do that. Years later when I was learning to do exercises in visualization, I discovered I had developed this aptitude when I was very young… I discovered that many people couldn’t see anything, but I could see right away, and that was a big help. I had a number of friends who said they were having trouble visualizing and I realized I didn’t have any trouble. When I wondered why I didn’t I remembered those chess games that Ben and I used to play.

Keeping an open mind: When my father started to sell records, he didn’t know which were the good records and which were the bad… But he noticed that some records sold and some records didn’t, so as a businessman he wanted to know why some of the records didn’t sell. He would take them home and listen to them, thinking if he could find out what was wrong with them, he wouldn’t buy the bad ones anymore. In the late forties, the music that didn’t sell was by Bartok, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. [emphasis DW’s.] Ben listened to them over and over again, trying to understand what was wrong, but he ended up loving their music. He became a strong advocate of new music and began to sell it in his store.

Working: Luckily for me, I never minded earning money as best I could, and I actually enjoyed working at the [steel mill]… My curiosity about life trumped any disdain I might have about working. So if this was a reality check, then I had happily signed on at a fairly early age.

On being influenced by Bruckner: One major, and unforeseen benefit of the Bruckner expertise I acquired came when my friend Dennis Russell Davies became the music director and conductor of the Linz Opera and the Bruckner House Orchestra. I went to Linz for the first time with the poorly conceived idea that my music would sound better played by an American orchestra, because they would understand the rhythms I was composing. To my surprise, the Bruckner Orchestra played these compositions better than American orchestras.

Upon noticing a man in his sixties composing music in a coffee shop, when he was doing the same while still a student: It never occurred to me that, perhaps, it was a harbinger of my own future. No, I didn’t think that way at all. My thought was that his presence confirmed that what I was doing was correct. Here was an example of an obviously mature composer pursuing his career in these unexpected surroundings… The main thing was that I didn’t find it worrisome. If anything I admired his resolve, his composure. It was inspiring.

An early job: In Pittsburgh, I wrote some music for children in grade school and some for high school orchestras… At the end of the year we had a big concert, where all the music I had written was played. It was very satisfying. Here I was, twenty-six years old, and I was having a complete concert of my own music.

His first wedding: We continued our trip, driving west to Gibraltar. “You know,” JoAnne said, “we can get married here for five pounds.” We were both twenty-eight years old… We took our five pounds to the civil office of a Mr. Gonzalez, and that’s where we were married.

At a performance in Amsterdam: Before I had gotten even halfway through my performance, I noticed someone had joined me on the stage. The next thing I knew he was at the keyboard banging on the keys. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, I belted him across the jaw and he staggered and fell off the stage. Half the audience cheered and the rest either booed or laughed. Without a pause, I began playing again, having lost the momentum of the music for not much more than five to six seconds.

For some reason Google Music offers woefully light coverage of Glass’s music. There are few of his symphonies, few of his early works, no Akhnaten, not even Satyagraha. You might expect him to be well covered given that he has some status in pop culture, but no. Why are his albums so absent from Google Music?

Times feature on upstate orchestras

Today the Times published a reported piece on the state of orchestras in Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany. It features a beautiful shot of Kodak Hall at the Eastman School of Music, part of the University of Rochester.

kodak

 

Though orchestras everywhere are struggling, the ones in these three cities are experimenting with techniques to draw new audiences, some of which are quite innovative. The story ends with a quote from the director of the Albany Symphony: “When I moved here from Los Angeles, I was very sad in the fall,” Mr. Miller said of Albany. “All the leaves died and fell off the trees, and I associated fall with death. And then finally my wife had to explain to me that it’s not about death. People love fall because it’s the first step to rebirth.”’

The most striking sentence in the story is this one, four paragraphs in:  “(This year’s festival starts on Monday; article, Page 17.)” It’s not hyperlinked.

That sentence is obviously meant for print. It’s amazing that it was not only unamended but also failed to link to the proper article. I’m a fan of both orchestras and news sources, but it’s grim to see one institution that has been struggling in the digital age is covered as a story of hope and rebirth by another institution that has seen arguably greater wrenching changes in the digital age. When the latter is so obviously stuck in the past, doesn’t it feel like conditions are bleak for both institutions?

Rockwell Kent (and my internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Hardly a week goes by without my thinking of my internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I remember it with such fondness. I had an incredible mentor, smart and caring, and it was good in so many ways. Here’s a post about a bit of that experience and about the work of an artist I like whom I discovered there.

PMA

The PMA is the most gorgeous place I’ve ever worked at. I liked being in a big intern class. There were around 40 of us scattered in different departments.  The overwhelming majority were art history majors. My department was an exception. I was a strategic planning intern in the Executive Offices, and worked with three people, all of them grad students: a Duke Law second-year worked for the general counsel; a Cooperstown student worked for government affairs; and a Wharton MBA second-year worked for the director of the museum. I was a sophomore working for the Assistant Director for Administration, developing a strategic plan for the museum over the next decade.

I commuted home every day with a student from NYU and a student from Stanford. We all took the Warminster Line into the suburbs. It was fun getting to know the arts majors from liberal arts colleges.

I applied to be a PMA intern in 2012 because of its museum studies program. I’ve never really studied art or spent much time in art museums, and wanted to spend a summer to correct that. The coolest part of the internship were the tours of the galleries conducted by the curators who managed them. As an intern for strategic planning I worked in administration, but received an education in art every day I was there.

In the second week of the internship we were taken on a tour by a curator to a new exhibit. It was there that I found an artist that I’m still moved by.

His name was Rockwell Kent. I hadn’t ever heard of him before. He was from New York, was active in the war years, and never got much involved in some of the crazier movements of his time. He can’t really be identified as an expressionist or a surrealist, though there are elements of the fantastic in most of his art.

He’s lived an interesting life. He was very active as a socialist, and was later Soviet sympathizer who won a Lenin Peace Prize. He also spent significant chunks of life in complete solitude in the wilderness of Alaska, Newfoundland, and Greenland.

Fun fact: He was plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Kent v. Dulles. The government denied him a passport to use to attend a conference in Finland. He sued for declaratory relief, saw summary judgment issued against him, and then won in the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

Here’s why I like his art.

Kent made a lot of prints of otherworldly figures in enormous spaces. They usually stood alone, undressed, against a massive backdrop. That backdrop was often a starry sky, the desert, or the ocean. But they’re usually nothing other than background. The figures usually take up more than a majority of the print.

Kent1

It’s as if these figures have conquered a massive part of nature. In fact they look like triumphant heroes. Except often they have looks of anguish. They look utterly, utterly alone. And they’ve mastered the loneliness.

Kent4

You get a sense that the figures are content with loneliness. Either that or the total opposite: they’ve given in to despair. I find them tremendously moving.

Kent2

They look supernatural, floating in space.

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He also sketched for Life magazine four of his conjectures for how the world might end. One of them was that gravity might stop working.

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The other was that the sun would flare.

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Kent was a socialist, and you can imagine these people as heroes of resistance. But I can’t help also to think of them as Randian figures: alone, and having conquered the need to be with others. Doesn’t that apply?

Anyway, Kent also painted and did some sketches as satirist in the ‘20s. He also made some illustrations of Moby Dick, which are wonderful

Here’s the PMA’s online archive of Kent’s work.