Thursday, November 24, 2011

After Mahler

In his essay "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony," Lewis Thomas writes that:
The man on television, Sunday midday, middle-aged and solid, nice-looking chap, all the facts at his fingertips, more dependable looking than most high-school principals, is talking about civilian defense, his responsibility in Washington. It can make an enormous diffference, he is saying. Instead of the outright death of eighty milliom American citizens in twenty minutes, he says, we can, by careful planning and practice, get that number down to only forty million, maybe even twenty. The thing to do, he says, is to evacuate the cities quickly and have everyone get under shelter in the countryside. That way we can recover, and meanwhile we will have retaliated, incinerating all of Soviet society, he says. What about radioactive fallout? he is asked. Well, he says. Anyway, he says, if the Russians know they can only destroy forty million of us instead of eighty million, this will deter them. Of course, he adds, they have the capacity to kill all two hundred and twenty million of us if they try real hard, but they know we can do the same to them. If the figure is only forty million this will deter them, not worth the trouble, not worth the risk. Eighty million would be another matter, we should guard ourselves against losing that many all at once, he says.
If I were sixteen or seventeen years old and had to listen to that, or read things like that, I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.
It's funny how the world has changed since the days when we worried more about almost predictable total annihilation than more or less random acts of terrorist slaughter. But Thomas's last paragraph sounds almost like a prediction, rather too late, of modernism. As a prediction, being about a hundred years late, it's hopeless. But as an insight into what has motivated a lot of what has gone on culturally since, say, the First World War, I think it's pretty good.   

One thing to be thankful for today is that we don't face the immediate prospect of the Russians killing forty million of us. Of course not all is well in the world, but it's not all bad either.

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