The prospects of a melancholic Left in a Democratic administration

The leftist response to Trump’s electoral defeat this month has been broadly melancholic.  Apart from the universal sense of relief, there has been little to proclaim or celebrate.  Instead, we witness the humble acceptance of a Pyrrhic victory that has come at the expense of great costs.

The mood of left melancholy prevails in web posts and publications.  This reaction is different from both the lament of defeat and the mourning of loss.  Leftists cannot mourn and overcome their new predicament since this is a political achievement with which they will have to live and govern.

There are of course many positive things that have been achieved and won in this election.  Voices of strategy and hope are already enumerating and honoring them.  Yet an attitude of disappointment and frustration seems inescapable.   Its most common adage is that Trump may leave but Trumpism is here to stay and be reckoned with.  As substantial local and national power remains in Republican hands, the country may well be ungovernable.  Forty years of neoliberal hubris and betrayal have come back to haunt the Democrats.

The sorrow of success makes us wonder what happens when what we face is not the loss of a beloved object (person, ideal, or value) but its procurement in an impoverished form.  The desired object is present but not fully operative as it is missing parts and functions.  This hurts even more than loss.  Instead of a traumatic memory, there is a lingering wounded body injured by its own spear, like that of Amfortas, Wagner’s ruler of the Grail Kingdom.  What can attachment and affection do with such a damaged object?    This is where the work of melancholy matters.

I have written before about left melancholy over the defeat of the revolution at the end of the 20th century.  I have also written about the cruel optimism of the leftists who continued to support the compromised Greek party of Syriza in the second half of 2015.  But the current situation presents neither ruins of destruction nor the bankruptcy of governance.  Here we are at the threshold of something new, an avowedly melancholic political success afflicted by a sense of dejection if not futility.

For some two centuries, the messianic anticipation of leftist utopia rejected as defeatist the tragic dimension of revolution.  Following the fall of communist regimes, left melancholy responded to the exhaustion of the revolutionary vision.  Now, for the first time, left melancholy responds not to a bitter defeat but to an impotent victory.  A political nihilism akin to accelerationism or Afro-Pessimism might be next, especially if the Republicans attempt to stay in power.

But if we place it in the framework of agonistic politics, left melancholy may be understood as both mood and action.  Under a Democratic administration a melancholic left may launch some important salvage work by refusing to accept the electoral damage as permanent, remaining loyal to the desired object (hegemony), and planning for an alternative integrity (assembly of comrades).  Instead of existential defeatism, aesthetic pessimism, or performative melodrama, it may cultivate a historicist melancholy that is grounded in the tragic antinomies of the revolutionary left and operates in the eristic contestation (stasis) of the civic domain.  It may aspire not to restore or redeem but refunction power.  It may retain and repurpose the traces of its loss.  A melancholic participation in the conflict intrinsic to democracy may focus on the agonistic struggle itself.  More importantly, instead of despairing over its impotent rule, it may pursue a redefinition of victory and its jurisdiction.

These are vague and weak suggestions trying to think through the role of the melancholic left on the stage of the post-modern tragedy of sovereignty.

P.S.  “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment)” is the first movement of Charles Ives’ orchestral set Three Places in New England (1911-14, 1929).  It is a tribute to a memorial in Boston created in honor of the second all-Black regiment that served in the Union Army during the Civil War.  Inspired by the monument, the movement evokes the slow “Black March” to battle in South Carolina where the volunteers fought with valor and many gave their lives in a tactical defeat.

10 November 2020

Posted in Crisis, Left, Melancholy | Tagged

Ύψη της πτήσης στην ποίηση του Γιάννη Στίγκα

Ο Βάλτερ Μπένγιαμιν και οι Ντελέζ/Γκαταρί βοηθούν να παρακολουθήσουμε στην ποίηση του Γιάννη Στίγκα την μοιραία πτήση ως πραγμάτωση και τιμωρία της ελευθερίας.  Εδώ η συμβολή μου στο 9ο τεύχος (Σεπτέμβριος 2020) του περιοδικού Θράκα που είναι αφιερωμένο στον ποιητή.

Πτήση Στίγκα

30 Οκτωβρίου 2019

Posted in Greek Poetry | Tagged

Sustained listening

I am endlessly fascinated by the musical direction sostenuto. I know well its meaning for the performer: Slow down and play notes in a cantabile manner prolonged beyond their normal time value. However, because I subscribe to a collaborative view of music making that includes the audience, I believe that directions are also addressed to the persons who are involved in the creation of a piece through their active, disciplined listening.

Thus I wonder, in such an expansive understanding of sostenuto, what is to be sustained – lingering or stretching? duration or repetition? accompaniment or mood? support or sustenance? stasis or style? tempo or texture? tension or temperament? Listening for sustainability to more than two centuries of this mode in the examples below, from Beethoven’s intimate (1801) to Norman’s grand piece (2018), may clarify or amplify these possibilities.

30 October 2020

Posted in Uncategorized

Εξέγερση: Η ρήξη με την παράδοση και η σύγκρουση με την εξουσία

Λέγεται πως ο 21ος αιώνας είναι ο αιώνας των εξεγέρσεων.  Αλλά τι είναι εξέγερση;  Εκφράζεται κοινωνικά, καλλιτεχνικά, πολιτικά, μειονοτικά;  Είναι δυνατή, επιθυμητή, επικείμενη, ανθεκτική, καταστροφική;  Ελληνόγλωσσοι ποιητές που εμφανίστηκαν μετά το 2000 σε ένα κλίμα «αριστερής μελαγχολίας» για το επαναστατικό όραμα συζητούν το θέμα σε σύντομα δοκίμια.  Η Έδρα Κ. Π. Καβάφη του Πανεπιστημίου του Μίσιγκαν, που προωθεί ερευνητικά και διδακτικά το έργο των νέων ποιητών εδώ και πολλά χρόνια, φιλοξενεί τους στοχασμούς τους σε μια καινούργια ιστοσελίδα που θα εμπλουτίζεται σταδιακά.

24 Οκτωβρίου 2020

Posted in Uncategorized

The pianist’s “divine madness”

Sequentia Cyclica (1948-49) is by any measure a demonic artwork.  One of the longest and arguably the most monumental piece of classical piano music, it is based on this theme, a version of the well-known Gregorian chant Dies irae:

This 4-minute cantus firmus is followed, for over 8 hours, by 27 variations, lasting anywhere between 2 and 65 minutes each, and drawing on a vast array of forms and genres.  Some of these variations consist of theme and variations.  For an extreme example, No. 22 consists of a variation and 100 variations on it.  By the time the 27th variation, a 40-minute six-voice fugue on five subjects, is over, I, at least, feel as if somebody has reconfigured the 20-volume Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in a vertiginous series of Deleuzian plateaus.

The “Cyclical Sequence” is an obsessional achievement of the obsessive Anglo-Persian composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), a prolific and recluse musician and critic who wrote many works of comparable scale and ambition while imposing additional practical prohibitions to their performance.  More than any other case, his life and work illustrate the grip of θεία μανία that the piano applies to musicians, composers and performers alike.

To many, the piano is not an instrument to play but an artistic “megamachine” to conquer, even subjugate.  Different ways to achieve this entail to pursue an encyclopedic command (Scarlatti, Alkan), to create a vocabulary (Bach, Nancarrow), to establish an audience (Chopin, Liszt), to write a music history (Rzewski, Sorabji), and to transcribe the canon (Godowsky, Hamelin).  In all these approaches, the musician is haunted by an abstract machine that promises an alternative world, a transcendent domain, on the condition of total devotion to it and a quest for ever greater challenges in spiritual ascesis.

Early in his education, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, looked into the abyss of a total pianistic life and prudently stepped back, saving himself from its divine madness.  Nevertheless, I can still see in his artistic disposition traces of that night journey to the top of mountain Cithaeron, sacred to Dionysus, and I think of Sorabji, possessed by μανία, working maenadically on yet another variation of a variation of the impending day of divine wrath, the Dies irae, which he used in no fewer than 10 of his compositions.

10 October 2020

Posted in Friends, Piano | Tagged

Workshop on Translation and Classical Reception

At the three-day workshop below, I am speaking on Phoebe Giannisi’s performative “somatic philology” as applied to Archilochus.

Translation & Classical Reception Studies: Workshop 2 (by invitation)

Richard Armstrong & Alexandra Lianeri:  Organizers’ Introduction

Our first workshop took place in Athens in January 2020, hosted in the historic Academy of Athens with support from the Academy of Athens and the Center for Hellenic Studies-Greece. Our second was to take place at the Herzog August Bibliothek, but the pandemic made this impossible. We gratefully acknowledge the continued support and interest of both the Herzog August Bibliothek and the Center for Hellenic Studies (Washington, DC) for this ongoing research project.

The field of classical reception studies has advanced considerably in recent years, often thanks to edited volumes by scholars coming from a variety of different approaches commenting on the state of research. Our project is geared toward a similar end, with a focus on integrating translation studies better into classical receptions, tackling some of the theoretical problems such integration presents. The papers offered in this second workshop range widely from the history of translations of canonical authors, to larger questions in transmedial and cultural translation, agency, materiality, performance, and the reception of Foucault in translation.


Tuesday 29 September 2020

Richard Armstrong, University of Houston
“The Untranslatable and the Unreceivable: Thoughts on the Imbrication of Translation and Reception Studies”                 Respondent: Simon Goldhill, University of Cambridge

Lorna Hardwick, The Open University
“Agencies in Translation: Theories, Practices and Further Questions”

Karin Littau, University of Essex
“Materialities of Reception: Anne Carson’s Catullus”

Vassilis Lambropoulos, University of Michigan                                                               “Classical Reception as Embodied Transformance”


Wednesday 30 September 2020

Michelle Zerba, Louisiana State University
“Translation and Mystery: The Eleusinian Mysteria at the intersection of Antiquity, Modernity, and Cultural Translatio”

Benjamin Stevens, Trinity University (San Antonio, TX)
“The medium had me read it first: Interlingual Translation as Metaphysical Transgression in Film Horror”

John Hamilton, Harvard University
“Parentheses of Reception, or What are Philologists for in a Destitute Time?”
Respondent: Martin Vöhler, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki


Friday 2 October 2020

Daniel Selden, University of California, Santa Cruz                                                   “Translation Literature

Allen Miller, University of South Carolina
“Foucault’s History of Sexuality: An Accurate Translation that Gives a Distorted Picture”
Respondent: Daniel Orrells, King’s College London

Alexandra Lianeri, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki                                            “Concluding Remarks”

General Concluding Discussion

28 September 2020

Posted in Uncategorized

Trivia games at the Times Literary Supplement

Who reads the TLS?  Who bothers with a weekly edited by the Stig Abells of British publishing?*

I do not refer to the small minority of people from the periphery, like me, who are interested in ways in which a lost empire is lamented and defended.  I mean the majority of readers, who enjoy reading a middle-brow publication with little respect for original literature, challenging thought, and innovative scholarship.

The TLS certainly cultivates provincial learning and mediocre taste.  But I always thought that there must be some desirable cultural capital that its followers earn.  I used to look for it in the depressingly insular Letters page, where people debate the merit of middle-brow writers like George Steiner and Isaiah Berlin, until I began to pay some attention to the back page, signed by one J.C.  Normally I would not even glance at its preposterous pedantry.  But then I wondered why the estimable publication wants this column to be the last message each week to its readers.  At that point it dawned on me that the business of the TLS is not evaluation, let alone judgment.  The business of the TLS is puzzle solving.  Literally cover to cover, its readers derive the satisfaction of solving puzzles in the counter-intellectual domain of memorizing names, dates, origins, places, and quotes – what Fleet Street considers “education” and “learning.”

This realization sent me back more than fifty years, when I began reading regularly the TLS, and was surprised by the anonymity of its reviews.  I now realize that the point of reading them was less to be enlightened than to match your wit against the publication by guessing the reviewer (something gratifyingly easy when he was Steiner).  Guessing correctly (and having access to verification!) gave readers a sense of much-needed validation:  They felt they belonged to a cultural community, even though one of puzzle solvers, not interpreters.

Now that the pretentious practice of anonymous reviewing has been abolished, J.C.’s column satisfies antiquarian narcissism by bolstering the self-esteem of those who do well at implicit or explicit trivia games.  It has confirmed to me that each TLS issue is essentially a collection of identify-the-source and catch-the-reference (pre-internet) puzzles which have something for every solver, especially those anxious to place themselves above Arnoldian Philistines and social justice advocates.

It was therefore fitting that the recent announcement about the new TLS Editor was published not prominently in the second page but at the very bottom of the last page of the July 3, 2020, issue:  It is nothing more than material for another TLS trivia game.

11 September 2020

* Just a few days after I posted this, the TLS published the last column of J.C., who “came out” as one James Campbell.  In it he confessed that “the secret of writing a weekly column is not so much having something to say as having a space to fill and a deadline to meet.”  Those of us who, for more than twenty years, endured his weekly delirium of disdain and derision have known all along that he never had anything to say, he was just trying to make a living by policing the English language.  Now he will no doubt mobilize his sycophants to lament the decline of the West.  Kudos to those who dismissed him.  Let us hope they will endeavor to turn their publication from middle-brow trivia to responsible book reviewing, and start by abolishing N.B. altogether.

18 September 2020

Posted in Culture, Literature | Tagged

Piano recitals (2)

Some recitals offer an anthology of great autonomous works from the canonical repertoire.  Others place works in a sequence to narrate the grand story of a composer, genre, or tradition.  A more recent kind of recital assembles a variety of works not in any particular order but in an experimental constellation that encourages their interaction.  The listener of such a recital has a lot of flexibility to rearrange the program, invent juxtapositions, add connections, and in general contribute to the performance.  This  participatory music making entails an entirely new mode of collaborative listening.

P.S. (9/11/20)  ‘After decades of respectful, even beatific enshrinement, classical repertoire is being challenged, tested, and “tough loved” by its fondest champions.  Among the smartest recording labels, one-composer programs — the norm since the arrival of the LP record in the early 1950s — are giving way to conceptual collections of music that juxtapose the ancient and modern, progressive and retrogressive, as well as the familiar and the obscure.’

1 September 2020

Posted in Listening, Piano

Piano recitals (1)

Traditional piano recitals, both live and recorded, consisted in precocious and neurotic virtuosos performing anthologies of canonical compositions by precocious and neurotic geniuses.  This interpretive tradition has recently come to an end, together with its supportive critical and scholarly discourses as well as the marketing of the compilation album and the concert series.  Today’s recital is more likely to consist in learned and sophisticated musicians performing thoughtful assemblages of standard and rare pieces by interesting and inspiring composers.

One of the many productive outcomes of the new practice is that now listeners pay more attention to the probing program than to individual works, appreciating the juxtaposition of periods, styles, and techniques.  Pianists today invite their audience to participatory music makingDoorways:  Half-Remembered Music by Chinese-American Susan Yang (a Michigan D.M.A.) is this year’s outstanding example.  I am grateful to my other self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis (another Michigan D.M.A.), who has taught me to listen collaboratively by assembling my own programs.







25 August 2020

Posted in Classical Music, Listening, Piano

The Wandering Musician

Perhaps no other genre in classical music is as intensely Romantic as the Wanderlieder cycle, the song cycle depicting the adventurous peregrinations of a young wayfarer.*    Such cycles represent the epitome of 19th century male subject position as poet, composer, performer, and listener – just read male critics on Ian Bostridge’s Winterreise!  I thought of this genre as soon as I started listening to a wonderful new work, This Land Sings:  Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2016), by my friend and colleague at Michigan, Michael Daugherty (1954), released earlier this year.

It is an absorbing musico-theatrical tribute to the legendary American singer, song writer, and activist which consists of 11 songs, based on poems by the composer and others, and 6 instrumental interludes, performed by soprano, baritone, and a seven-piece ensemble.  It chronicles the wanderings of the “Dust Bowl troubadour,” Woody Guthrie (1912-67), from coast to coast during the Great Depression and World War II as he travels with his guitar and harmonica for some twenty years, performing his self as consummate protest musician and singing about personal, social, and political issues.  This restless Woody is a man always ready to hitch a ride, a “Perpetual Motion Man” (#3), a man constantly on the go, a “Wayfaring Stranger” (#17).  We follow him as he is wandering across times, places, communities, jobs, and above all across numerous musical genres – hymns, folk, country, blues, jazz, rock, mariachi, klezmer, and more.

The seventy-minute work is structured like a Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast with optional announcer.  However, instead of a radio stage show, I hear a classical song cycle, like the one invented and cultivated in German-speaking lands in the early 19th century.  Following in the footsteps of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, this Romantic wanderer too leaves home in a personal, artistic, and intellectual quest for wholeness, unity, recognition, and reconciliation.  What makes his journey exceptionally fascinating is that he traverses most idioms of the American musical vernacular.  Thus, he is constantly looking not only for another town, lady, drink, venue, and audience but also for the kind of musical style that is right for the topic and the occasion.  Daugherty’s magisterial command of compositional and performative codes surveys the landscape of American tradition, offering both a codification and a concise introduction to it.  His wayfarer leaves behind the natural world of Schubert, Mahler, and Krenek to travel “through this world of woe” (poverty, exploitation, racism, pollution, guns), seeking each time the right political and musical idiom to lament and denounce it.

Daugherty’s Woody Guthrie reminded me of another iconic American wandering musician, the inimitable Harry Partch (1901-74), who also spent his life traveling from coast to coast looking for another love, drink, venue, instrument, and his own vision of total music.  Above everything else, the work that comes to mind is U.S. Highball:  A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip, composed in 1943 for voice and adapted guitar, and revised for various ensembles of Partch’s own microtonal instruments over the years until 1955.  It chronicles the two-week freight journey from California to Chicago of Mac, a young hobo, through a polyphonic soundscape of economic depression created around snatches of conversation, comments, signs, and inscriptions at a time when the composer believed that music should match the musicality of speech.   Scored for two speakers and seven instrumentalists, the composition became part of The Wayward (1941-55), a cycle of four autobiographical works based on Partch’s hobo years.

It would be interesting to compare the intense interest in American linguistic and musical idioms shared by Guthrie and Partch, and further explored by Michael Daugherty throughout his distinguished career, which has been promoting civic awareness and hope for over three decades.  Note that all three composers early on left behind the home of the European musical tradition to experiment with American techniques of composition and comportment.  Since my focus here is the wanderer song cycle, I should conclude by emphasizing that Daugherty himself is an inveterate wayfarer as evidenced not only in compositions such as Route 66 (1998) and Sunset Strip (1999) but also in the notes accompanying many of his recordings, where he talks about the several trips he takes to research a work and find out how “this land sings.”  To compose, he too needs to wander, both physically and culturally, across styles, discourses, domains, and soundscapes.  At some point the journeys of the song cycle and the life cycle begin to overlap.

P.S. On another occasion I may write on the wanderer in the Greek tradition, a figure that can be traced in ancient literature and philosophy (Silvia Montiglio:  Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture, Chicago UP, 2005), Baroque poetry as well as modern drama (Παναγιώτης Σούτσος:  Ο οδοιπόρος, «δραματικόν ποίημα», 1831), song cycle (Μάνος Χατζιδάκις:  Ο οδοιπόρος, το μεθυσμένο κορίτσι και ο Αλκιβιάδης, op. 31, 1973), and photography (Χρήστος Χρυσόπουλος:  Η συνείδηση του πλάνητα:  Disjunction-Απορρύθμιση, Οκτώ, 2015).  This material could be part of a collaborative course.

*  A few representative compositions that may be considered wanderer song cycles:

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826):  Leyer und Schwert, op. 42 (1814), 6 songs for male chorus based on poems by Theodor Körne.

Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1949): Neun Wanderlieder von Uhland, op. 34 (1818), 9 songs for baritone and piano based on poems by Ludwig Uhland (1813).

Schubert (1797-1828): Winterreise, D. 911 (1827), 24 songs based on poems by Wilhelm Müller (1824).

Schumann (1810-56): Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner: Eine Liederreihe, op. 35 (1841), 12 songs for baritone and piano.

Gustav Mahler:  Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-85), 4 songs for medium voice and piano on the composer’s own words.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Songs of Travel (1901-4), 9 songs for baritone and piano on poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection of the same name (1896).

John Ireland (1879-1962): Songs of a Wayfarer (1903-11), 5 songs for baritone and piano by various poets.

Ernst Krenek (1900-91):  Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, op. 62 (1929), 20 songs for baritone and piano on the composer’s own words.

Harry Partch (1901-74): U.S. Highball:  A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943-55) for voice and custom-made instruments.

Ridion Shchedrin (1932): The Enchanted Wanderer (2002), a “concert opera” on the composer’s libretto based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel by the same name (1873).

30 July 2020

Posted in Classical Music, Culture | Tagged , , , , ,