I begin with a news bulletin, announcing a tentative tactical victory for decency.
The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday canceled its plans for a live, global broadcast of next season’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” amid concerns that it could fan anti-Semitism. The company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said Tuesday that he had received hundreds of emails over the past 10 days calling on him to cancel the transmission of the controversial opera by American composer John Adams. “The Death of Klinghoffer” depicts a 1985 cruise-ship hijacking and the murder of a Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, by Palestinian terrorists. Mr. Gelb said he didn’t believe the 1991 opera was anti-Semitic but added that he was aware of “great concern, which I think is justified,” about “anything that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as pro-terrorist.” (“Met Opera Cancels ‘Klinghoffer’ Broadcast, “The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2014.)
The First Assassination of Leon Klinghoffer.
On October 7, 1985, four pirates, engaged in the cause of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), took control of the Italian luxury liner Achille Lauro as it was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said, Egypt. They demanded ransom, including the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons, for the crew and passengers. The next day, befuddled by the delay in response to their ransom demand, they were delighted to discover that among the passengers was a real live Jew! Not only that — an American Jew! And best of all – a disabled American Jew! God is great! They quickly ordered two members of the ship’s crew to wheel the wheelchair of their helpless and terrified captive – Leon Klinghoffer, then 69, retired and in the midst of celebrating his thirty-sixth wedding anniversary with his wife Marilyn — to the edge of the ship and drop him overboard. (Some images belonging to this story time, can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtGKXTkSwuo)
As the worldwide press speculated over the meaning of all this, PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi, who knew that his boss Yasir Arafat had indeed commissioned the deed, helped them out by speculating that Klinghoffer’s terminally ill wife Marilyn Klinghoffer had killed her husband for insurance money.
Initially, the hijackers were granted safe passage to Tunisia by Egypt, but U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. fighter plane to force the get-away plane to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. After fussing over the appropriateness of extradition in such a matter, Italian authorities eventually arrested and later tried the Palestinian terrorists. Reagan’s motto was: “What we want is justice done… a message to terrorists everywhere…. ‘You can hide but you can’t; run…”
None of this counted for anything, however, when in 1993 the Clinton government recognized Yasir Arafat and his PLO as the appropriate instrument for peace throughout the Palestine Authority. The Nobel Peace Prize followed shortly after that.
Deconstruction of the Murder of Leon Klinger, With the Help of Music.
There are those who find Ronald Reagan’s judgment simple-minded. Indeed, souls more sensitive than Reagan’s are now proclaiming that the entire “Klinger affair” was misjudged, and blame this misjudgment on the moralistic mentality that even now, is slowly and painfully being overcome by practitioners of the highest culture. John Adams explains that his purpose in writing this opera was “to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in their victims.” Tom Morris, the Director of the new Metropolitan Opera company production believes that “the opera’s most important contribution is in providing an opportunity for the audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict.”
To these deep-thinkers, production of this opera presents an opportunity to put before enlightened spirits the cause of the suffering Palestinians. The little incident with Klinghoffer was not an act of savagery, as might first appear to decent folk, but a “statement.” In his review of a concert performance at the Juilliard School in January, 2009, Anthony Tommasini, Chief Music Critic for the New York Times, explained:
[This performance] allowed this searing, mystical and ambitious work to come through without the doctrinaire baggage that has attached to it [the Klinghoffer incident] over the years …. Somehow the performers here, too young to have been aware of the polemics the opera initially incited, brought unjaded involvement and affecting commitment to … this multilayered, complex and elusive score under Mr. Adams’s direction.
The appropriate moral-levelling effect appears, Tommasini finds, at the beginning, “with a pair of somber, brooding, agitated choruses, giving voice first to exiled Palestinians, then to exiled Jews.” This exchange between choirs, to right and left of the scene, reminds Tommasini of the similarly powerful “St Matthew Passion,” of Johan Sebastian Bach. (“In a New Generation, a Searing Opera Breaks Free of Polemics,” New York Times, February 2, 2009.)
This thought goes right off the scale of offense that begins with giggles and ends with blasphemy. But then, the New York Times long ago gave up believing in the ontic possibility of blasphemy – about the same time as it gave up on the notion that that there is such a thing as pornography.
These are broken people – these aesthetes who imagine that judgments about right and wrong must go under the yoke of supra-moral hermeneutics. Simple-minded people see a helpless, elderly man pushed overboard by an armed, athletic youth, cheered on by co-sadists. But not all the nuance in the world – not all the unjaded and affecting commitment to all that is multilayered and complex – will ever scrub clean this filth; and all effort along that line is simply demonic.
Minimalism, Relativism, and Deconstructionism.
I believe that there is a connection between the acceptance of minimalism as a great achievement of modern music and the delusion that there is something to be won from “trying to understand the hijackers and their motivations.”
In plain terms: I think we are being had by the concoctions of the minimalists – among whom the reigning genius is said to be John Adams – a title that, when I last looked, he was contesting with Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The first works of these composers, I find, were referred to as the “Hypnotic school”—a term that, in my view, should have been retained, as many European composers, including Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener) achieve musical effects that can be described as deliberately “minimal” without seeking the mind-numbing effect that the “minimalists” work for through compulsive reiteration of the smallest shards of musical theme.
My impression is that the vast majority of people who attend and applaud concert performances of the major minimalists are living in the same fear that clutched the audience in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. People suffer through hour after hour of re-iteration of mindless bits of theme, thinking, “There must be something profound here, but who am I to say so, when all are agreed that this is the current form of greatness?” For myself, I have sampled the major figures in the Minimalist school and I sum up my experience by paraphrasing Charles II on Prince George of Denmark: “I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober, and there is nothing in him.”
But we are not alone. The esteemed European composer and conductor Pierre Boulez denounced the movement long ago as “a kind of social pathology, as an aural sign that American audiences are primitive and uneducated.” “Minimalist repetition” said the American composer Elliott Carter, is like “all that junk mail I get every single day … [It is like] when I look at television … and I try to follow the movie that’s being shown, but I’m being told about cat food every five minutes. That is minimalism.”
I would be so bold as to suggest that minimalism in musical composition is cut from the same cloth as deconstructionism in philosophy. It is intellectually and morally shallow and aesthetically desiccated. People are just afraid of appearing quaint and un-clubbable when they suggest that some things are right or good and other things are wrong or bad. And that goes for music too.
Anti-Zionism: A Fruit of Moral Deconstructionism and Minimalism.
Among many who wrote to the Manager of the Metropolitan Opera about Adams’ morally-seditious work was Barbara Okun of Ottawa:
I have no doubt the Metropolitan Opera assumes Mr. Adam’s work is worth supporting, but the rationale here is sadly misguided. He has chosen to portray a highly sensitive and politicized issue in an outrageous fashion. His (and your) rationale is that there is a reasoned argument to justify terrorism, in this case, terrorism for an anti-semitic cause.
Pushing helpless old men overboard is not a philosophical statement. No “unanswerable questions” will occur (as Tom Morris imagines) to any decent person as he contemplates this scene.
Nowadays, it could never occur to any intellectual of standing in our midst to search for nuances of this kind and calibre except in the matter of Israel and Israel’s long-standing effort to defend its citizens and its sovereignty against these ever-escalating waves of terrorism.
The decision of the Obama government to indulge the Hamas-Fatah coalition draws from this same deep deconstructionist well. (See my essay, “The Sigh of Relief Hear ‘Round the World,” The Bayview Review, June 10, 2014.) The moral bankruptcy involved in this policy of relativism-cum-anti-Semitism escapes sophisticates who presume the relativity of every moral position. And it equally escapes the generality of the unwashed who are afraid of appearing too stupid to detect multilayered, complex and elusive nuance.