There are times that one is proud to be a part of this nation, this city, this culture. One such occasion was a week ago this past Tuesday, when a bunch of us gathered at Bargemusic to celebrate the birthday (gentlemanly discretion forbids me to put a number to it) of chamber music’s treasure of treasures and “onlie begetter”: Olga Bloom. It was a truly joyful occasion.
Olga and Modernism grew up together, you might say, and so it was fitting that the bulk of the program was French, and full of resonances from the days when Paris was the garden in which the brightest blossoms of art flowered: Francaix’s C Major String Trio, a couple of Debussy preludes for solo piano, a movement from the Fauré Piano Quartet in C minor, played with consummate beauty by violinist Mark Peskanov, violist Toby Hoffman, cellist Bridget Macrae and pianist Maris Gothoni. Young Gothoni, incidentally, is the son of Ralf Gothoni, the genius musician who some years ago won the Gilmore Prize, which is to piano-playing what the Pritzker is to architecture and then some. I can only say that if young Gothoni keeps it up, chances are he’ll one day have a Gilmore of his own to go with his old man’s.
When the incomparable Mr. Pes-kanov (I do not use the phrase the same way Liz Smith does when she gushes about “the fabulous Star Jones”) announced the program, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that wonderful passage in The Important of Being Earnest when Lady Bracknell discusses the music for her party with her nephew Algernon. I reprint it here, if only as a reminder of better times, when playwrights writing in English actually wrote English: “French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper, and either look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse.” Well, there was nothing improper or vulgar on this evening, especially when Olga herself picked up her fiddle and took the second chair for a performance of Haydn’s Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 54.
It was during the Largo section of the final movement of the Haydn that I found myself once again contemplating a subject that has practically become obsessive with people my age and older: the conviction that we are in the earliest days of an entirely new era, subject to its own cultural physics and neural patterns, for lack of a better word. The old world, which you might say began with Homer, is dead or running on the vapors. (Vapors like Haydn quartets, the Ethics of Aristotle, the Gettysburg Address, The Wealth of Nations , the Sistine Chapel ceiling, King Lear , “I have a dream … ” and so on.)
In a nutshell, as I see it, we are departing an era in which the past had value and present moral utility, and entering a brave new world in which it has none. What caused this shift? There will be a million answers as the world goes on, but my own is that the compression and fragmentation-nuclear fission is a nice metaphor-of time and space by technology and science will prove to have been at the bottom of the great shift. The dollarization (a more accurate term than “globalization”) of the world’s commerce and culture has also counted for much.
I’m glad to have lived when I did. By my lights, my great-grandchildren will miss out on much in the way of truth and beauty, but these are relative anyway, as is everything in the New Era, and in any event they probably won’t know what they missed-and in that ignorance, who knows, there may indeed lie bliss.
Of course, after an evening at Bargemusic there’s always the next day, and a reminder that the world is still too much with us.
As someone who has written a weekly column for close to 15 years, I must count myself a member of the media, and frankly I find that a shaming thing. Especially now that-out of sheer curiosity-I’ve tuned in the revised Crossfire , which may be the single stupidest program I’ve ever seen in 50 years of pretty dedicated TV-watching.
I’ve also been plunged into a quandary by the furor in a teacup caused by the publication of David Brock’s mea culpa as a “right-wing hit man.” Here’s my problem. In 1992, I voted for Bill Clinton. Bush Sr. had demonstrated all of the qualities I had hoped he wouldn’t, and none of those I had hoped he would. By 1996, I had completely soured on Mr. Clinton. I couldn’t bear the thought of Bob Dole, either, so I didn’t vote that year. The Lewinsky affair rounded out my disgust, and from that time on I routinely referred to Mr. Clinton in this space as a liar, a philanderer and a peddler of political indulgences. But I never did so as a member of a right-wing conspiracy! I did so because I thought the man had shown a carelessness about his office that was unacceptable. I thought his style was phony, that his Presidency was all talk, that his example was dangerous and corrupting. I buy tickets to see Macbeth performed at B.A.M. or the Globe; I don’t vote to see it enacted in the White House.
These were pragmatic, not ideological conclusions, drawn after the fact, on the basis of the evidence of gross misconduct while in the Oval Office . Nothing that Mr. Clinton may have done in Little Rock-the Palermo of the U.S.A.-either surprised or disturbed me. I feel badly for Mr. Clinton that J.F.K. got away with getting blow jobs in the White House and he didn’t, but times change, like it or not, and if we don’t go with the flow, the flow will drown us.
But now anyone who has attacked Bill Clinton is lumped in with extremists like Richard Mellon Scaife and Bob Tyrrell and the Moonies. I think you can make the case that an equally loony and unbalanced left-center media conspiracy is after George W. Bush. It seems to me that the hatred of Mr. Clinton ascribed to the right by his defenders is equaled if not surpassed by the animus felt for Mr. Bush from the left: equal in its ferocity, its determination, its resources (I’d rather have The Times on my side than Mr. Scaife’s Mellon millions) and its willingness to spin the “evidence” to suit its politics. Just read any Frank Rich column.
Right-wing, left-wing, these are both houses that could benefit from a good old-fashioned plague-but where is the voice in the whirlwind when you need Him? Back in the Old Era, apparently.
One sure sign that a tectonic cultural shift is occurring under our very feet: the fact that everywhere one turns, there are octogenarians spouting off. Look at the evidence. Louis Rukeyser, at 70, got canned, but what’s in his place looks like a meeting of the Sun City Shuffleboard Committee. This paper recently celebrated a self-perpetuating cabal of superannuated Manhattan biddies, and The Times last Monday made note that the time-stamped AARP registrations of the 60 Minutes gang go back to the first administration of Grover Cleveland.
We need vitality, and what are we doing? Consulting gaga! In the dancing flames on the candles on Brooke Astor’s centenary birthday cake, one can find much to celebrate in terms of joy and remembrance, but precious little that will help solve the Middle East.
The problem is, if these now ancient folks are/were all so smart, why isn’t the world shaped during their palmy days in better condition? The answer would have to be, I think, that the world isn’t because they aren’t/weren’t. They were too stupid and greedy and self-congratulatory (a lesson-the only lesson-they really seem to have taught their dot-com grandchildren) to let go of power and educate proper successors; we were too polite to take it away from them once they reached their sell-by date.
If there is one lesson I suspect history teaches, it’s that there never was a gerontocracy worth a damn. Look at the dinosaurs: They went their merry way, reading about themselves in the Jurassic equivalent of Liz Smith’s column, and then one fine millennium an Ice Age came along and extinguished them. Look at Churchill in his dotage.
Honor thy elders, yes. Love them and take them out to Sunday lunch. But make sure they stay in Palm Beach. At times like these, the backward glance is fatal-which in a funny way is what undid Bill Clinton. He thought he could play by 1960 rules, but the “discreet” of those times has been replaced by the “discrete” of ours. The way words are misused tells a lot about a culture.
Like everything else, it could be worse. Fifty years from now, just think: It may be possible to clone Henry Kissinger. Or Barbara Walters.
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