An elegy for the Jewish cultivation of Hellenic self

The enchanting movie Call me by your name (2017) pays a melancholic tribute to a major project of Protestant modernity, the Jewish self-forming engagement with aesthetic Hellenism.

The movie, based on André Aciman’s Künstlerromanby the same name (2007), deals with the virtuosic involvement of three successive generations of Jewish-American men with Hellenic ideals of learning, leisure, lure, and love.  The three men spend a few weeks together in a private and privileged world of reflection, refinement, and reverie.  Their sophistication is precocious:  they command languages and sources, they hone their taste, they discipline their feelings, they practice toleration.  They excel in three exemplary fields of classical interpretation – archaeology, philosophy, and music.  Other than interpreting figures like Praxiteles, Heraclitus, and Bach, and their reception, nothing matters to them:  Contemporary events are never discussed, women are passive and have no voice of their own, and the local Italians are either their housekeepers or coarse guests who have the temerity to debate the forthcoming general election. The three handsome men remain devoted to Bildungas they are sculpting their elegant selves into statues of problematized interiority and performed superiority.   This is the Grand Tour of classical desire undertaken by Jewish intellectuals like Freud, Hofmannsthal, Bernard Berenson, and Chester Kallman.  There are no living Greeks in the movie, not because it takes place in Northern Italy but because its Jewish men are the authentic living Greeks.

I have discussed the aesthetic premises of the movie in The Rise of Eurocentrism, where I suggested that “Bildunghad always been exclusively Hellenic: Greece had been its land of remembrance, reverie, and return because it was presumably there that the integration of character and citizenship, of private education and public virtue, of morality and culture reached perfect balance.  The classical texts, artworks, and monuments were taken as a lasting and inspiring testimony to that achievement.  Bildungwas not just a revival of the ancient or the classical but specifically an adoration of the Hellenic: its goal was not (Roman) order, as in baroque absolutism, but organic harmony.  It constituted nothing less than the idealist appropriation of antiquity that encouraged Enlightenment to replace the republican rule of aristocracy with its own democratic control through culture” (138).

This Hellenic ideal of Bildung“was from the very beginning prominent in discussions of the social, political, and philosophical place of the Jew” as the question “of Jewish emancipation became a crucial one for the theoreticians of bourgeois culture and virtue.  It came to the fore of public discussions in major countries like Germany, Austria, and France in the late eighteenth century and was closely linked with the civil emancipation of the middle class itself” (139-40).  Around that time, “the Jew was invited to become the model middle class subject and was endowed with all the bourgeois privileges (that is, human rights).  This interpellation was premised and based on a secular contract: ’emancipation was what the states were to grant, assimilation what the Jews were to give in return’ (David Sorkin: Leo Baeck Institute Year Book1990: 18).  Its specific character was the Jews’ covenant with aesthetic culture” (140).

The Jews of moderntiy were invited to assimilate and join the aristocracy of distinction by excelling in the vigorous exercises of Bildung.  “The Jew was chosen as the case most appropriate for the testing of this system: representative of the financial territory claimed by the burghers, bearer of learned reason and traditional morality, seeker of equality and tolerance— this (imagined) person, as an educated individual, could potentially become the best example of what the enlightened middle class promised to do for all people” (140).  Jews were encouraged to distinguish themselves in high culture and the practices of its interpretation.  “The projected Jewish cultural assimilation through interpretive proficiency was the large-scale experiment in Bildungin the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The experiment was to use the Greeks in order to educate the Jews – to educate the Other in order to legitimize the knowledge of the Same, the regime of aesthetic identity; and the condition was that Jews become good citizens by showing commitment to culture, respect for political authority, and faith to the total separation of the two. ‘The cultural and the political were two different worlds, and Jewish emancipation was a decisively cultural emancipation’ (George Mosse: German Jews beyond Judaism, 1985: 70). The Jewish covenant with the aesthetic was the supreme realization on a large scale of Schiller’s idea of social engineering through culture” (142).

With its focus on the love between the two younger intellectuals, the movie Call me by your namealso confirms why “the connection between Jews and homosexuals should be made on the basis not of deviance or otherness but of the aristocracy of culture (morality and taste, respectively) they represent.  If culture is the eminent quality of bourgeois aristocracy, then moral knowledge and artistic taste are its main elements, representing its Hebraic and Hellenic dimensions.  ‘Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.  Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities.  The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.  The reason for the flourishing of the aristocratic posture among homosexuals also seems to parallel the Jewish case.  . . . The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense.  Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense’ (Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation, 1966: 290).  Jews and homosexuals are but two cultural manifestations of the Hebraic and the Hellenic.  The care of Bildungis the combination of the two senses— the aesthetic as moral, or sensibility as conduct” (139).

The movie takes place in 1983.  In the novel, the story of that enchanted Italian summer is narrated in 2004.  By that time norms of self and affect had changed.  The two younger men may still love each other and treasure their time together but their ideal of Bildung, the Jewish mode of embodied classical reception that brought them together, was no longer part of their world.  The exhaustion of Jewish modernity before the end of the 20th century signaled “a change of era: the end of the age of critical Judaism and the beginning of that of a Judaism of order” (Enzo Traverso: The End of Jewish Modernity, 2016: 128).  As post-colonial intellectuals are now claiming creatively to be today’s living Greeks, Call me by your nameis suffused with an elegiac melancholy over the passing of that unforgettable Hellenism where the “Jews of culture” called each other by their Greek names.

November 1, 2018

Posted in Classical Music, Culture, Hellenism, Literature, Melancholy, The "Greeks"

Autumn songs

Fall is a season while Autumn is a modality of the world.  Autumn is the world we are attuned to when our feelings as a subject and the elements of the Fall converge.  If a Heideggerian mood is “an engaged attunement that involves world disclosure,” the ten songs below resonate the mood of melancholy to disclose Autumn as a state of being-in-the-world.

[Egon Schiele: “Four Trees”]

Schubert: “Die Herbstnacht”, D 404: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Gerald Moore

Schumann: “Herbstlied”, op. 43 no. 2: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier – Christoph Eschenbach

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, mov. 2, “Der Einsame im Herbst”: Christa Ludwig – Leonard Bernstein, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Strauss: Four Last Songs, “September”: Kiri Te Kanawa – Georg Solti, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Elgar: “A Song of Autumn”: Benjamin Luxon – David Willison

Amy Beach: 4 Songs, op. 56 no. 1, “Autumn Song”: Kyle Bielfield – Lachlan Glen

Fauré: “Automne”, op. 18 no. 3: Elly Ameling – Dalton Baldwin

Hahn: “L’automne”: Susan Graham – Roger Vignoles

Bloch: Poèmes d’automne, no. 3, “Le declin”: Brigitte Balleys – David Shallon, Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra

Weill: “September Song” from the movie September Affair (1950) by William Dieterle

October 1, 2018

Posted in Classical Music

Networks of civic friendship

It is remarkable to see affective bonds and civic practices of friendship invoked in several discussions of resistance to globalization, colonialism, and normativity.

Reflecting on possible lessons from recent democratic failures in Greece, Britain, and the U.S., classicist Johanna Hanink notes:  “The more puzzling lesson is that, despite these countries’ connected failings, the international Left still seems to lack the kind of genuine solidarity that would unite its members in common cause against power’s drift away from the people” (“Maybe we weren’t all Greeks after all,” ThePressProject, 8/16/2018).  How can such a lasting solidarity be built?  Hanink stresses that Leftists “still stand in need of transnational networks strong enough to stand up to oppressive global structures—from the financial system to the increasingly united far right. … In her 2006 book Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi showed how, in the late nineteenth century, a ‘politics of friendship’ transcended the distinction of colonizer and colonized in Britain and India. Affective bonds between members of marginalized groups, from socialists to ‘sexual misfits’ to mystics to vegetarians, collapsed simplistic distinctions between East and West and proved critical for anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles”.

In an original exploration of anticolonial thought in late Victorian intellectual subcultures, Gandhi tells the stories of a number of well-known South Asian and European friendships that flourished between 1878 and 1914 to show how “weaving together the disparate energies of Marxism, utopian experimentation, and continental anarchism, these individuals and movements facilitated the mutation of ‘internationalism’ into a series of countercultural revolutionary practices for which I claim the name ‘politics of friendship’ [and] argue that this politics rendered metropolitan anticolonialism, albeit briefly, into an existentially urgent and ethically inventive enterprise” (Affective Communities, p. 9).

Gandhi’s use of “politics of friendship” as a term “privileges, after Derrida, the trope of friendship as the most comprehensive philosophical signifier for all those invisible affective gestures that refuse alignment along the secure axis of filiation to seek expression outside, if not against, possessive communities of belonging” (10).  Her postcolonial use of the term cited by Hanink also appeals to queer theorist Tom Roach who finds that “Gandhi’s understanding of friendship’s inherent homelessness, its uncanniness, mirrors my earlier articulation of the emergence of the concept of friendship as shared estrangement. … The idea and the relation are generated in common and regenerate the common.  The friend is neither possessive nor possessed, neither owner nor owned. … The friend is the fleeting placeholder of an asubjective affectivity moving through ontologically variegated singularities; it is the figure that intuits and enacts the common, that which seethes beneath and is excessive of relations and communities founded in identitarian difference” (Friendship as a Way of Life:  Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement, 2012, p. 15).

Gandhi’s application of Derrida’s “politics of friendship” to collaborations between anti-colonial India and anti-imperial fin de siècle is comparable to uses of friendship in another colonial territory described by Jon Soske (History & Classical Studies) and Shannon Walsh (Theater & Film):  “As a discourse and idea, friendship between colonizer and colonized played a number of different, if sometimes overlapping, roles in South Africa during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It provided a flexible language for the articulation and development of social solidarity across multiple sites. … In this sense, the term ‘friend’ possessed an ambiguity that historians have noted in other contexts:  it could refer both to a privileged, intimate relationship and to a broader range of social acquaintance. … Overlapping with a Christian discourse of universal friendship, this language circulated alongside similar terms such a brotherhood, … cooperation, … and … solidarity” (“Thinking about Race and Friendship in South Africa,” in Walsh and Soske, eds., Ties that Bind:  Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, 2016, pp. 18-19).

All these political reflections on friendship as alternative civic solidarity resisting various regimes of subjugation and subjectification resonate with certain earlier theories.  For example, French scholar Marc Bizer’s discussion of Cicero’s De amicitia (45 B.C.), La Boétie’s On Voluntary Servitude, and Montaigne’s “On Friendship” (1580) shows that all three authors emphasized “the goodness of friendship as the antithesis of tyranny” (“Whose Mistake?  The Errors of Friendship in Cicero, La Boétie, and Montaigne” in Basil Dufallo’s superb collection of original essays Roman Error:  Classical Reception and the Problem of Rome’s Flaws, 2018, p. 40) while looking into the proper place of friendship in political life.  While Montaigne, writing under the influence of the French Wars of Religion, offered an idealistic description of friendship, situating it “outside of the sphere of politics” (49), it is Cicero who saw “friendship as a conscious, willful decision to enter a socially and personally constructive relationship based on the pursuit of virtue” (47) and inquired into the relation between loyalties of friendship and interests of the state.

Civic friendship as training in dwelling, care, recognition, and solidarity has been a central focus of my blog.  As I have argued, this political training takes place between exceptional friends making music together.  That is why this blog does not reflect on the abstract meaning of friendship but draws on the exercises of a comprehensive collaboration that has made Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis my “other self.”  By promising “each other to a shared future,” radical friends may become comrades who join forces in local commons and in transnational networks of collaborative civic friendship.

September 1, 2018

Posted in Collaboration, Friends, Left, Music, The Common

“Modernist Theory & Theater between the Tragic & the Melancholic”

Here is a video of two lectures at the University of Michigan in dialogue on modern tragedy:  the brilliant Ian Balfour (English, York) focuses on Shakespeare’s Hamlet while I focus on the tragedy that has been called Luigi Pirandello’s Hamlet, Enrico IV (1922).  My lecture, between 1:01:15-1:44:00, is followed by questions and answers.

I am grateful to Srdjan Cvjeticanin and Megan Torti, the wonderful organizers of “Central Concepts in Contemporary Theory,” a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop at the University of Michigan, who invited me to speak.

March 24, 2018

Posted in Disengagement, Literature, Melancholy, Resistance | Tagged , , ,

The listening self

Musicians do not play an instrument.  They are using instruments to play their body.  They resonate instruments in the echo chamber of their reverberating body.

In attending or watching live performances, I have learned to listen not to the interpretation, let alone the “work,” but to the resonating bodies of the musicians, whether they are soloists or an entire orchestra.  I am drawn to the music making of bodies, to bodies being musicalized in performance.  An eminent occasion of this musicalization is bodies resonating with percussion, as my six clips below (in chronological order of composition, all with soloists) illustrate.  While Jean-Luc Nancy (1940) in his Listening (Àl’écoute, 2002) discusses the “listening self” in general, in this post I want also to highlight the work of that most committed listener, the musician.

From the very beginning, my entire blog is predicated on the idea of a non-metaphysical open listening to sense, a listening that has not been neutralized by philosophical hearing for truth, to use Nancy’s distinction drawing on “a dynamic, resonant philosophy that subsists in the space of the renvoi; in sound that exists only as a resounding” (Sarah Hickmott:  “(En)corps sonore: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Sonotropism’, French Studies69:4, 2015, 483).  If it is not truththat I am seeking to hear, what is the sensethat I am listening for?

Sense is not meaning but what makes signification possible.  It is itself  “meaning(ful) rather than havingmeaning that needs to be located ‘elsewhere'” (480), beyond music. Sense does not sound, it resonates – like Stimmung.

“Sense is first of all the rebound of sound, a rebound that is coextensive with the whole folding/unfolding of presence and of the present that makes or opens the perceptible as such, and that opens in it the sonorous exponent: … sense consists first of all, not in the signifying intention but rather in a listening, where only resonance comes to resound” (Nancy: Listening2007, 30).  Sense and sound share the “form, structure, or movement” (9) of resonance/renvoi.  “The resonance of sense as the vibration of a sonorous materiality” (Adrienne Janus: “Listening:  Jean-Luc Nancy and the ‘Anti-Ocular’ Turn in Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory,” Comparative Literature63:2, 2011, 192) is the foundation of my listening.

“The foundation … of all senses of resonance is the resonance of the listening body, the ‘corps sonore‘ (resonant body) that … ‘opens a simultaneous listening to a ‘self’ and to a ‘world’ that are both in resonance’ [Nancy]” (191).  By listening we open ourselves up to “being as resonance” (Nancy 21).  Nancy emphasizes “the sensory relationship between world and listener, a listening that begins not with the search for meaning but on the basis of the sensory qualities of sound” (Brian Kane:  “Jean-Luc Nancy and the Listening Subject,” Contemporary Music Review31:5-6, 2012, 443).

In his acoustemological study of Derridean difference as the sonorous, Nancy makes two key claims:  “firstly, sound is always already a resounding that folds into itself any distinction between subject/object and inside/outside.  Secondly, that sound subsists as a kind of opening or sharing, and in a privileged relation to all the resonances of sens(as perception, intelligibility, and direction)” (Hickmott 479-80).  We cannot talk about works as complete productions, not even about music as an actual separate being of sonorous form. “Musical objects don’t disclose truths, but only present themselves as the technique of the sonorous made into an active presencing” (Michael Gallope:  review of Nancy’s Listening, Current Musicology86, 2008, 162).

Rather than a philosophy of music, Nancy’s book proposes an otocentric thinking of listening and an ontology of the listening self as a resonant body/corps sonore, a sonorous subject listening to the infinite resonance/renvoiof meaning, sound, and self.  “Nancy privileges the body of the listening subject against the rational, seeing, determining and signifying intellect” (Martyn Hudson: “What, am I Hearing Light? Listening through Jean-Luc Nancy,” HJ Journal19, 2014, 3).  Nancy is suggesting “the conditions of possibility for … a philosophical style of thinking and writing based on listening as a mode of attending to the resonances that penetrate, reverberate between, compose and decompose self and world, the psychic and the bodily, the intellectual and the sensual” (Janus 185).  Furthermore, he “resists re-inscribing a listening subject and a listened-to object.  Instead, the audible appears affirmatively as the perpetual flux of a shared, sonorous world” (Hickmott 482).

I owe my aural disposition to pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self” (pictured at the top in one of our joint recitals), who to me represents, as a musician, “the productivity of the self as an ongoing temporal or rhythmic pulse” (Kane 445).  Since I started listening to his listening, I have become increasingly aware of how a musician uses an instrument to activate his body as a “reverberation chamber” (Nancy 27).  Even before touching the piano, from the moment he gets ready to approach it, Pantelis begins to tune his body, preparing it for the sonic encounter.  While playing, he is listening to his pianistic resonance so intensely that I, his audience, in response, listen by resonating as well.  I cannot tell the piano from the music or his body as timbre “envelopes and penetrates communication itself” (Janus 191).  I do not hearinspiration or interpretation.  I listento Pantelis’ performative listening by reverberating his reverberation, which is literally making, that is, generating, sense of both self and world.  I have learned to listen by reverberating the sonorous body of my “other self” as it is musicalized in performance through composing/presencing a self/world.  As I wrote in my very first post, “Together we co-habit a resounding present, we achieve a presence in flux.”

I cannot tell what came first, our friendship or our collaborative music making.  They probably emerged together since friendship operates like listening, despite the absence of instruments.  When listening to each other, friends resonate and compose a reverberating world for themselves and for others.

October 10, 2017

Posted in Attunement, Classical Music, Collaboration, Friends, Listening

“Greek Democracy in Crisis or Stasis”

“The decade of the Greek 2010s may be understood in two very different ways, both of them based on Leftist views of the explosive December of 2008: Either in terms of a biopolitical crisis whose victims need the government΄s pastoral care or in terms of stasis whose actors contest self-rule agonistically.  I will argue that stasis, understood as internal contestation of power, provides an alternative model of institution to the dominant model of crisis according to which Greeks continue to be governed.  I will base my discussion on a comparison of the manners in which fiction and poetry have been rendering the crisis and the stasis respectively legible.”

Greek translation

August 14, 2018


Posted in Autonomy, Crisis, Culture, Friends, Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Left, Melancholy, Revolt, The Common

Recent popular songs referencing classical music

[In this post I am happy and proud to host Erin Mays, a former student of mine and very successful professional in software product management, who has an admirable command of music as a performer, listener, thinker, administrator, even fundraiser.  Given her love for things Greek, I thought I might introduce her reflections with a demo of how to dance … Mozart’s 4oth Symphony.  Below is her post.]

In the years since I took classes with Vassilis at the University of Michigan many (many) years ago, our shared passion for classical music and opera has given us a reason to stay connected, whether it’s disagreeing over Matthew Polenzani’s Werther (he’s a fan, I’m not), comparing notes on the Lyric’s commission of Bel Canto, or geeking out over Joyce DiDonato (as one does). Vassilis has invited me to share my “happy retirement” card to him, inspired by some of the lists he’s posted to this space. It consists of 10 songs in semi-recent popular music that reference classical works (some less obviously than others). While I know the sources need to be there, I think it’s pretty meta to be missing citations in a post about a practice that rarely includes citations. We hope you might help us add to this list by sending in your suggestions of recent songs with classical references.

10. “Lacrymosa” by Evanescence (Requiem by Mozart)

9. “Breathe Me” by Sia (“Metamorphosis One” by Philip Glass)

8. “Little Me” by Little Mix (Pavane by Fauré)

7. “Intergalatic” by the Beastie Boys (they directly sample Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky, with an easter egg of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor within the song itself)

6. “I Belong to You” by Muse (“Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns)

5. “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga (“Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti)

4. “Love of My Life” by Santana and Dave Matthews (Symphony No. 3, third movement, by Brahms)

3. “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes (Symphony No 5, first movement, by Bruckner)

2. “Exit Music for a Film” by Radiohead (Prelude No. 4 in E minor by Chopin)

1. “Butterflies and Hurricanes” by Muse.  This one might be cheating — I don’t believe Matt Bellamy actually references here, but his cadenza right in the middle of the song is clearly inspired by Rachmaninoff; probably his 2nd Piano Concerto.

There are some terrible examples I chose not to include here… Do not listen to “If I Had Words” by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley if you enjoy Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. It’s (almost) aptly named – I have no words.

Erin Mays

June 1, 2018

Posted in Classical Music, Popular Music