Ladies and gentlemen, I, John Adams, am thrilled to be asked to do this year’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values here at Yale. I am honored to see so many distinguished faculty along with the wonderful staff and fellows of the Whitney Center for the Humanities here. And even the president and his wife, seated straight ahead of me! What an honor, sir. You were all so kind not to laugh when I stumbled up the narrow steps to the lectern, making a regular Jerry Lewis entrance onto this small stage here and nearly spilling all sixty pages of my discourse onto the floor. I’ll do my best to make up for it by filling the room with my wit and wisdom for the next hour.
Ladies and gentlemen I’ve worked my butt off on these two talks, especially this dazzler today about an antisocial German who contracts syphilis and takes to composing twelve-tone music. I’ve labored long and hard to make myself sound erudite and absurdly clever, a regular walking, talking centerfold hottie from the New York Review of Books. I am going to make you think I’m riffing without notes, leaving Harold Bloom in the dust and letting drop pearls of wisdom and clever asides as nonchalantly as kicking a can down the street.
Now even though we’re here in a university setting, I can’t help noting an unusually small number of people in the audience who don’t look like they’re already at the emeritus stage of life. Those of you out there with the tattoos, can I see a show of hands as to whether you are familiar with Doctor Faustus? No, not the heavy metal thrash band from Düsseldorf, I’m talkin’ ‘bout Thomas Mann, Death-in-Venice guy. Yes? There we go. OK. Chill with me a bit while I limn for you the social currents of Twenties Weimar and show you this Google map here of the tiny town of Kaiseraschern, Bavaria, where our hero spent his boyhood studying Palestrina and Hegel while other kids played marbles and hopscotch.
The boy’s name is Adrian, and he’s not going to win many votes in the popularity department. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, and those that even can say they know him have funny names, like Serenus Zeitblom, Rüdiger Schildknapp, Rudi Schwerdtfeger and…ah, well, I guess those are the only friends he has. Oh yes, there is Haetera Esmeralda, his Beatrice, whom he doesn’t get to spend much time with, not at least any longer than to catch a beaut of a headache from her. Adrian, they say, is modeled on a number of fun-loving Germans, including Martin Luther, Ludwig van Beethoven, Hugo Wolf and Friedrich Nietzsche. He learns music from the local organist, another funny moniker guy, Wendell Kretschmar, a wonderfully enthusiastic teacher who gives lectures on late Beethoven to tiny audiences of five or ten people. Now as a new music composer myself I know audiences of five or ten people, so I can attest to the veracity of this novel.
Wendell Kretschmar is a stutterer. He gets caught on the precipice of a long expository sentence and is left hanging there in mid air, with the final elusive syllable smiling at him like a Cheshire cat while he helplessly lurches to grasp it. I’m assuming there is something richly symbolic in Wendell’s stammer because Thomas Mann never does anything without it MEANING something. I’m not sure what this speech defect means, but I’m certain that it means.
We can’t go any further talking about Doctor Faustus without mentioning that exceptionally badass dude who was a virtual one-man kitchen cabinet for all the heavy aesthetic theorizing that makes this book such a sweet read. You KNOW whom I mean, don’t you: Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno. All right! OK, hold your applause until after the lecture, please.
Now ladies and gentlemen, I recall about fifteen years ago touring with the Ensemble Modern, a group of crackerjack new music virtuosi from Frankfurt, doing programs that featured the music of Frank Zappa. And every night before a concert in a different city I’d do a little pre-concert talk, and I could always tell who the Zappa fans were, because they all had a lot of facial hair and would sit there in the back of the room with their arms folded and sour expressions on their faces, waiting for me to trip on a fact or make a fatal misstep, a lèse majesté that might result in my being publicly flogged and sentenced to a hundred listenings of “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”. For some reason the mention of Adorno rouses a similar posse of pedants and quibblers, ready to roll their eyeballs in exasperation and just waiting for the first opportunity to pounce. Now I’m going to tell you right out front that when it comes to Critical Theory, guys, I’m a total babe in the woods. But I’m also a kid in a candy store here, having fun with all this stuff, so go easy, OK? I promise not to make any embarrassing George Bush-type sophomoric jokes about eggheads with names like Lyotard. (You know— semiotic frog dude with the fab hair?)
Oh dear, is that the president I see there, dozing off? His eyes are closed and he’s listing ever slightly to starboard. Could it be he’s just concentrating hard, summoning up his own first reading of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Uncle Walter? Or maybe he’s thinking of that gaping fifteen billion dollar drop in the endowment he’s got to plug. I wouldn’t want your job for the world, Mr. President. I don’t know how anyone can do it. And by the way, your wife is unbelievably cool with her short, pixie hair and her over the top enthusiasm for the classics. When was last time someone said to me “Virgil rocks my world!”
Let’s see, how can I wake the Prez up? Throw around a couple of shockers, maybe? Here we go. “Polyphonic objectivity!” No luck. “Walter Pater and the musicalization of literature!!” No dice. He’s off in la-la land. “Apocalypse cum figuris!!!” Mild movement of the shoulder and a long yawn. OK, go for the big guns now: “the antithesis to bourgeois culture is not barbarism but collectivism!!!” Still listing, almost over onto his wife’s lap now. I’m desperate. “FRANK ZAPPA!” He jolts upright to consciousness, staring straight at me in stunned attention.
[Turns out the Prez is a brilliant economist and big fan of Sixties rock. We agree that while Germany may have Mann and Adorno, we have Jake and Elwood. However, later in the evening at a dinner party I’m going to discover a gaping hole in his cultural pedigree. He hasn’t seen The Big Lebowski. The dude has not seen The Big Lebowski, Donny. The dude has not met The Dude!]
So we have here a great novel, written during the worst part of World War II by Germany’s greatest living man of letters, living in exile in Pacific Palisades, California. As he writes the book he reads the newspapers and listens to the radio and watches from afar the complete self-immolation of his beloved country. He will never return to live there, even though after the war he’s asked by a group of civic-minded intellectuals to accept the symbolic position of President of the new republic. This is a tragic book, but it’s nonetheless written as an exuberant parody. In the end, Thomas Mann sees that an obsession for order in a society leads to a terrible sterility—cultural sterility, artistic sterility, imaginative sterility. It’s what drives one to make a pact with the devil. Thank heaven, ladies and gentlemen, for those who represent our bulwark against sterility right here in the good ole raucous, consumer-driven, lowest common-denominator, vulgar, tasteless, disorganized and downright messy US of A.
Hats off, my friends, and a fervent round of applause to Jake and Elwood, to The Dude (“this will not stand!”), to Donny, and to Allen Ginsberg ogling that cute stock boy in the late night supermarket. Thank you Adrienne Rich for diving into the wreck. And thanks to you, Michael Jackson for your moonwalk and to Herbie Hancock for taking us on our first Maiden Voyage. And we’ll even give a nod of appreciation to snarky Don’t-eat-the-yellow-snow Mr. Z. himself. Thank You Thank You. Thank You all for keeping us awake and alive, for keeping us from falling, as Germany did, into that fatal sleep of forgetfulness.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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