Voltaire – A Genius, a Slave of his Passions

Max Gallo: “Moi, j’écris pour agir” Vie de Voltaire. ISBN 978-2-253-12894-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I seem to develop a certain passion for highly ambiguous people from the past: the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the Czech writer Franz Kafka and now the French poet and philosopher Voltaire. Interesting. Perhaps I am beginning to discover that most people who “made a difference” had to confront and overcome internal conflicts and a hostile environment to accomplish their mission? Perhaps I am beginning to realize that excellence always comes at a very high personal prize?

Compromise is a word I do not use very often, moderation is not a virtue of mine, my ambition is well-hidden. Voltaire did not compromise on his personal goals – becoming rich, influential and famous. He would not moderate his opinion, though he would often deny to have written what he had indeed written. And his ambition was obvious to anyone in Paris and beyond, obvious to the courts of Louis XV and Frederic II, who played him as they pleased. Voltaire in turn served the French and German monarchs and betrayed them at the same time.

Voltaire, born François Marie d’Arouet, brilliant writer of poems, essays, novels, plays, pamphlets and scientific treaties – what a man! Voltaire, liar, lackey, lover – what a life! Max Gallo, one of the most acclaimed French historians, has written an impressive biography of Voltaire. Profound knowledge coupled with a magnificent narrating style – a pleasure to read from beginning to end. If you can read between the lines, you will find out that Gallo is in love with his subject. And without making himself any judgment, Gallo leads the reader to play the role of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge of Voltaire.

Voltaire – what a strange man he was! He could not shut up when it was prudent to stay quiet. He angered and defied his few protectors and made himself an easy prey for his innumerable enemies. He had a certain conception of truth and personal freedom he would never betray, no matter how dear he paid for it. More than once he was imprisoned, beaten, abused, more than once he had to flee abroad. His offensive defense of freedom of speech came a century too early for Europe, but Voltaire was unable not to raise his voice. Is that obsession? It is. Is it vanity? It is. And still, I have to admire him in a way: this stubbornness, this intransigence, it reminds me of someone. Voltaire, how familiar he seems to me. Surrender is not an option.

Voltaire was a man of passion. He had the passion to write, to live, to fight for the ideas of the Enlightenment, the passion for arts, the passion for a philosopher’s life. And his passions led to a great deal of personal suffering. Voltaire quickly enriched himself, he saw his personal wealth as a guarantee for his personal independence. What a delusion! He never achieved true independence because he needed the recognition by France’s aristocracy, the Prussian and the French king and the applause of the audience – a self-chosen dependency, a self-chosen source of misery.

Et l’amour dans tout cela? Voltaire would not have been Voltaire if he had not had a passion for women too. Torn between his infatuation with his niece Marie-Louise Denis and the long friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, mistress, soul mate, friend, confident, Voltaire’s way with women left at least three people unhappy. It made Voltaire vulnerable emotionally and in terms of social recognition. Both Voltaire and Emilie de Châtelet harboured rather liberal ideas of how an unmarried man and married woman can spend their time together. Had the word “scandal” not existed before, it would have had to be invented for them. Voltaire was looking for trouble and he found it.

This said, provocation was not a goal in itself. Not for Voltaire, he was way too intelligent for such a move. He did provoke with all his passion: the Jesuits, the Catholic clergy of France, the Calvinist clergy of Geneva, his fellow-philosopher and rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau, corrupt judges and prosecutors, witch-hunters, writers siding with the clergy and tyrannical noblemen. He carried the torch of the Enlightenment and he was not afraid to carry it into the darkest corners of France.

Voltaire was a man of extreme contradictions, just like Shostakovich and Kafka. As a young man he had embarked on a quest for Truth, yet his life was marked by falsehood, his own falsehood and the falsehood of the society he lived in. Voltaire had looked for depth of thought and sought the company of the most superficial individuals in the Kingdom of France. Passion had made Voltaire blind for reality, him an admirer of rationalism. And vanity had turned him into a slave of his own obsessions.

At the same time Voltaire had noble ideals – a liberal and free society. Towards the end of his life, he had the financial means to realize a small-scale social project, to improve people’s living conditions on his estate near the Swiss border. It wasn’t all just talk, Voltaire took action to improve society. He was ahead of his time as a Frenchman, for the French Revolution would occur only after his death. But Voltaire prepared the ground. His violent campaigns against the lack of freedom, justice and fairness softened the enemy, and when the French took to the street, the monarchy quickly fell apart. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, Voltaire was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century.

The discrepancies between ideal and real in Voltaire’s life reminded my of one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Death, in the shape of syphilis, hang like Damocles’ sword of the life of both geniuses. What would Voltaire have thought of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death of the Maiden”? He might have shivered, incredulous.

Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

Clara Schumann – A Look Behind the Veil

Dieter Kühn: Clara Schumann, Klavier. ISBN 978-3-596-14203-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Before I read this book, I didn’t know much about Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife, born as Clara Wieck. On my music blog I exclusively refer to her under her maiden name; I will proceed in the same manner here. Having been married to a famous composer tends to obscure the fact that this woman had a fascinating life before she married Robert Schumann and even more so after her husband’s tragic death in an asylum.

Dieter Kühn’s biography is an excellent book. The amount and variety of sources he has consulted is impressive. The testimonies from the 19th century he has chosen to illustrate Clara Wieck’s world, how it changed, its highlights and the uncertainties, are remarkable and often hilarious. His narrative style is a little special: He interrupts the long list of biographical facts by interjecting personal speculations and philosophical musings. This makes the rather voluminous book fairly easy to read and entertaining, but I could imagine that this us not to everybody’s taste. I enjoyed it however, so I will not dwell upon this any longer.

The most extraordinary quality of the book lies in Kühn’s talent to let himself be fascinated by Clara Wieck’s person without losing his objectivity. He makes a point of not writing a hagiography and wants tp do away with many myths that surround Clara and her husband. Myths that Clara has partly created herself. Kühn maintains a considerable distance to his subject and is very critical of Clara Wieck. For Clara Wieck was a very complex person. A duplicitous person.

Appearances greatly mattered. Clara Wieck presented herself as a loving and true wife, a loving and tender mother, as a pianist devoted to her art and the composers whose works she performed: Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann. She presented herself as a good friend of Johannes Brahms and as the guardian of Robert Schumann’s heritage. All of this was true. But there’s was a dark side to all these aspects.

Robert Schumann had contracted syphilis as a young man; this illness lead over time to mental disorder. When he gradually become more and more confused, depressed, irate, Clara told him at some point she could not deal with the situation any longer and that she would like to hand his care over to professionals i.e. to transfer him to an asylum. This triggered Schumann’s suicide attempt. During the two years her husband spent at the asylum she visit him only once, shortly before he died. Three of the Schumann’s children suffered from severe ailements: Ludwig was schizophrenic and had been “burie aluve”, as Clara put it, while Julie and Felix had tuberculosis. Clara never visited Ludwig in the asylum, and when the other two died, she was too busy to attend the funerals and to mourn. She had concerts to give.

While Clara did occasionally compose, she felt no inner voice that wanted to express itself in a piece of music. She had to be pushed, by her father, by her husband. She had an excellent pianistic technique, she exercised a lot and sometimes against medical advice, but her style did not please all. Masterful yes, but too dry, too academic – those are the judgments of experts of her time.

Clara Wieck was obsessed by her career as a pianist. She had been trained by an ambitious father, she had been held back by an ambitious husband, but once Robert Schumann was dead, Clara Wieck’s career took of. She earned fame all over Europe and quickly became a very rich woman. At the same time her excuse for devoting very little to her children was that she had to give concerts to feed the family. A blatant lie, one of many.

Here is another one. Clara Wieck and Johannes Brahms – the story of a truly legendary friendship? Brahms had fallen in love with her and courted her for years. She gladly accepted his devotion while her husband was still alive. After his death, her initial friendship to the young composer evolved into real love and a romance. It did not last however, and somehow both settled for long-lasting friendship. The details are unknown, Clara erased most traces and spread a narrative that suited her best. Appearances mattered.

Clara Wieck – since I have read Kühn’s biography, her name triggers in me ambiguous feelings. I like her compositions, I find her career as a female pianist in a reactionary Germany impressive, but I judge her tendency to run away from painful moments and truths appalling. Her many efforts to spread myths glorifying her husband and her relationship to him, her insistence that it was her duty as a mother to give hundreds of concerts over decades when it was pure vanity repulse me.

I am glad I read this book. I might have fallen for the embellished picture that Clara Wieck has spread about herself. When she was a very young girl and did not yet think of manipulating people, she wrote a wonderful work, her Piano Concerto in A minor:

Un air de Chopin signed Clara Wieck

I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

img_4463-1

Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

Rescueing America’s Middle Class – A Woman’s Mission

warren elizabeth.jpg

Antonia Felix: Elizabeth Warren. Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. ISBN 978-1-4926-6528-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I had no idea how much I would love this book. It was fun to read, and it gave me an excellent insight into the plight of the American middle class, a fundamental factor in understanding how somebody like Donald Trump could become president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s story, told by Antonia Felix, reminded me of Karl Marx’ description of how factory owners exploited factory workers in the 19th century and how the proletariat got caught in the trap of low-income, no education and no chance to rise from misery. An informed account of social injustice and the economic mechanism behind it.

Don’t get me wrong. Warren is not a Communist, not even what the Americans call a “Socialist”. She is labeled sometimes a “dangerous liberal”, and her Republican opponents mean it as an insult. But this only adds to her credibility. She is dangerous for selfish, arrogant politicians and bank CEOs, not for common mortals. Actually Warren is very much in favor of the market economy. She is also a staunch defender of the level playing field that should give all Americans a realistic and equal chance to live the “American Dream”. And there you have it: The playing field is not level. As a scholar she studied the income situation of the middle class for decades. She initiated the first large field study to find out why households file for bankruptcy. Investigating what circumstances pushed households over the cliff became her academic mission.

Losers and winners

Globalization divided the United States into losers and winners, it turned Main Street against Wall Street. The unbridled capitalism, marked by a deregulated banking sector and highly fragile financial constructions, proved to be one of the traps in which the middle class got caught. Lay-offs and the lack of adequate social security were part of the problem. Another element was the easy money that flooded US consumer pockets. You have bills to pay? Use the credit card? You default on your credit card? Take another credit card! Never mind that the bank will charge you outrageous fees later. And African-Americans and Latinx become more easily a prey for ruthless lenders as they are more often targeted by such lenders and often lack the education to see the trap closing.

Then there is the housing issue. A house in a good neighbourhood – one with a good school and other public infrastructure – is an expensive investment. Mortgage financing seems to be the quick and easy solution. But many are not aware of the dangers and the expertise needed to work through the paperwork. Add the risk that many take in refinancing their consumer credits through their mortgage. A grim picture. “Americans are drowning in debt”, Felix writes. “One in four families say they are worried about how they will pay their credit card bills this month […] Last year [2017], 1.2 millions families lost their homes in foreclosure.”

On the brink of poverty

A situation all too familiar to Senator Warren. She grew up in a poor family in Oklahoma. Both parents had to work, and at some moment, their home was at risk. Young Elizabeth was expected to marry a good man and not to start expensive studies to become a teacher as she wished. Gender roles were an issue, but already as a young girl, Elizabeth Warren knew how to persist. Persist – it became one of her winning formulas and quite a few members of Congress and staffers at the White House have experienced Warren’s tenacity. She became an outstanding researcher and teacher wining multiple awards.

Warren’s desire to learn and to teach brought her to the pinnacle of law studies in America: Harvard. However Warren’s career did not stop there. Having situational awareness is one thing. Finding ways and means to remedy the situation is another. But is it the job of a Harvard scholar? Warren’s expertise, her savvy use of TV shows and her publications made her a well-known person all over the United States. And soon after the financial crisis, Democrats from Washington started to reach out to her. In her youth she had been a Republican, her study of the consequences of “laissez-faire” capitalism have converted her.

A scholar turned politician

In October 2008, Congress authorized 700 billion US dollars to stabilize the economy through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It targeted the failing banking sector, and Warren joined the Bankruptcy Review Commission to supervise the implementation of TARP. She got a first taste of Washington politics and was appalled. It was all about saving the banks, and still no one cared about those who had their savings and pensions wiped out. She wrote a brilliant article with the title “Unsafe at Any Rate” and requested safety standards for credit card contracts and mortgages similar to those in force for electrical appliances, toasters for example. At the end of a long political battle stood the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Partisan infighting prevented Warren to become the agency’s first director as Republicans had vowed to take the agency down, no matter what the political costs were. And a retired senator, Barbara Mikulski, gave Warren a piece of advice: “Don’t get mad; get elected.” What she did. After some hesitations, she resigned from her post in Harvard and went on an election campaign targeting the people who were the subject of her studies: the impoverished and weakened middle class that did not seem to have a champion in Washington.

Serving the people

Warren’s desire to serve the average American has become her hallmark. She appears genuine in championing this cause, and it’s a worthy, noble cause. She knows as much about the issues at hand as anyone in the United States. As a senator she forged bipartisan bills by reaching out to other female senators with common sense. She has a strong sense of community, visible to anyone who cares to watch, and being elected twice to the Senate proves that she stands a chance to accomplish even more. A “Washington Post” writer has her in the first slot of the Democrat’s candidates for the presidential elections in 2020. People like Elizabeth Warren do not claim to make America great again. People like Elizabeth Warren actually make America a better place.

Female heroes are not exactly abundant in classical music, but this does not mean that they do not exist at all. Judith, who gave her name to a chapter of the Old Testament, is such a hero, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed at the age of 15 “La Betulia Liberata”, an oratorio about Judith’s deeds:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment