Tuesday, March 17, 2009

alle menschen

Alle Menschen werden Brüder.

-- Friedrich Schiller, An die Freude

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, when the Berlin Wall came down, they celebrated the reunion with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s German music after all, and the oppression overthrown in those days was of Germans and by Germans. But why, when apartheid died without mass bloodshed, and the Union of South Africa became the Republic, did that new nation stage its own performance of the Mighty Ninth – music from the European culture that under banners of two empires had parted people from their land?

A reasonable person would conclude there was no other way to do what was to do.

“All people become brothers.” (The meaning hovers between “will be” and “are becoming.”) All people, including master and slave. The first version of Schiller’s famous line was “Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder” (“Beggars become princes’ brothers). All people: that’s what the joy is about. Many songs have said this, but no song enacts it. For incarnation, a symphony is required.

A song is cyclic, arriving in thirty-two bars where it began: a theme, a repetition, a bridge that hints at difference, then return. Except as a joke or by means of a dance break and a key change, you cannot sing a song for more than three minutes. But a symphony goes on a journey: that’s why it takes so long. It starts with an internal conflict that cannot be resolved in place and travels into foreign lands, arriving at a different place though looking back to where it started. Wherever you go, there you are – but traveling has changed you.

The form called “symphony” was fashioned in a time and place – the Age that’s called Enlightenment. How in a paragraph to say what they were up to then? intoxication of the universal law, both natural and moral. There are no special cases, shouted Hume and Voltaire, no miracles and no divine right of kings. No one, said Kant, is to be treated as means to someone else’s ends. Wherever you go, there you are: the same laws rule. The journey is symphonic: from ignorance to knowledge, from bondage to freedom, from suffering to joy. Schiller, though a scion of Romanticism, studied Kant and chanted his imperative: the beggar shall become the prince’s brother.

I had a theology professor who used to say the word “Enlightenment” with a flick of head and voice, eliciting a murmur in the room, and I would feel a shadow passing over. I knew that the murmurers knew that I could not murmur with them. I should not get too uppity, I thought, there might be consequences. Turn and turn about: a draft of justice, the professor’s way of making sure it’s “not too easy” for me.

But why is this Enlightenment in such bad odor? Because, as in the case of most religions, its prophets have betrayed it. Jefferson, a Unitarian president, proclaimed the inalienable right of all human beings to pursue happiness, and yet he owned human beings and lived in statutory rape with one of them. Enlightened liberals, comfortably located in their societies, have rolled over for tyrants, too long tolerated the intolerable, accommodated slavery and segregation. In all fairness it must be said that we’ve also had our times of glory; some of us have done great things that only could be done from our location. But dreams of virtue do not make the dreamer virtuous. Nor do diplomas make us wise.

The past of people once enslaved is joy and torment. My past, though in a different mode, is also joy and torment. I have no right to own the joy without the torment. I have no right to bask in torment and refuse the joy. The liberation is in the joy – die Freude. The joy is what I have to give.

If the dream has been betrayed, the cure is teshuvah – return. For betrayals I must make amends, but for dreams of brotherhood I offer no apology or reparation. Without Enlightenment, there’d be no liberation, no prospect of peace, only turn and turn about – wars, enslavements, genocides and trails of tears – followed by more wars. God favors the oppressed, but not because the oppressed are without sin. Oppression violates the law, the universal law that no mullah or mogul, no prince or prelate, can contain; and that’s why every valley must be exalted, the hills made plain.

I did not create Enlightenment. To claim its glory or its sin is grandiose of me. Yet I am labeled as its heir (as if all Brüder were not heirs). Okay, unworthy as I am, if you must hand me the portfolio of Hume and Kant, of Mozart and Voltaire – I’ll take it up (for lack of other candidates), and I must make a declaration.

I do not ask for gratitude. But from liberals and liberationists, respect is welcome.

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