Roman poet Ovid, owls, superstition and love

Ascalaphus is turned into an owl. Engraving by Johann Ulrich Krauß, 1690

This picture is a 1690 engraving by Johann Ulrich Krauß. It shows a story much older than 1690. It is an illustration to the long poem Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid.

In book V of Metamorphoses, Ovid writes about a minor god in Greek polytheism, Ascalaphus. He was the custodian of the orchard of Hades, the god of the underworld. Hades had abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. The supreme god Zeus decided that Persephone had the right to return to her mother, if she had not eaten anything in the underworld. Persephone had just eaten a few pomegranate anils. The only one who has seen that was Ascalaphus. He told the other gods. That meant that Persephone had to stay in the underworld, at least for six months of the year.

Persephone was so angry that she changed Ascalaphus into an owl by sprinkling him with water of the underworld river Phlegethon. The Johann Ulrich Krauß engraving depicts this metamorphosis from humanish divine form to owl.

The engraving caption says that Ascalaphus becomes a ‘Stein-Eule’. The modern German name for this owl species is Steinkauz. The English name is little owl. Ovid does not specify which owl species Ascalaphus became.

K. Sara Myers wrote in the American Journal of Philology that he became a screech owl. However, these American owls were unknown to Ovid and other Roman empire age Europeans.

Ovid writes in Metamorphoses, book V, lines 549-550 (translated):

So he became the vilest bird; a messenger of grief; the lazy owl; sad omen to mankind.

Deane Lewis writes:


Throughout history and across many cultures, people have regarded Owls with fascination and awe. Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over generations.

In early Indian folklore, Owls represent wisdom and helpfulness, and have powers of prophecy. This theme recurs in Aesop‘s fables and in Greek myths and beliefs. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the Owl had become the associate of witches and the inhabitant of dark, lonely and profane places, a foolish but feared spectre.

Unfortunately, at some times and places in human history, including India and Zimbabwe, superstitious prejudices have arisen against owls. These prejudices can be overcome by education about these interesting and useful birds. Apparently also in ancient Rome, when we read Ovid’s lines, there was anti-owl prejudice.

Deane Lewis mentions differences between Greek and Roman mythology on owls:

In the mythology of ancient Greece, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the Owl that, having banished the mischievous crow, she honoured the night bird by making him her favourite among feathered creatures. Athena’s bird was a Little Owl (Athene noctua). This Owl was protected and inhabited the Acropolis in great numbers. It was believed that a magical “inner light” gave Owls night vision. As the symbol of Athene, the Owl was a protector, accompanying Greek armies to war, and providing ornamental inspiration for their daily lives. If an Owl flew over Greek Soldiers before a battle, they took it as a sign of victory. The Little Owl also kept a watchful eye on Athenian trade and commerce from the reverse side of their coins.

Athenian tetradrachm from after 499 BCE

This photo shows a tetradrachm coin from ancient Athens, after 499 BCE. On one side, Athena, the protector goddess of the city. On the other side, the little owl, the goddess’ bird.

Greek 1 Euro coin with little owl, 2002

This photo shows a Greek 1 euro coin with a little owl, from 2002.

‘While the owl was seen by the Greeks as a protector, the Romans saw it more as a harbinger of doom’, this blog says. So says Paul D. Frost; and the British Bird Lovers site.

Diana Lewis also mentions ideas about owls in Ovid’s Roman empire, different from ancient Greece:

The Roman army was warned of impending disaster by an owl before its defeat at Carrhae, on the plains between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

According to Artemidorus, a second century soothsayer, to dream of an owl meant that a traveller would be shipwrecked or robbed.

Another Roman superstition was that witches transformed into owls, and sucked the blood of babies.


19th-century United States literature and politics, interview

United States historian Brenda Wineapple (Credit: Elena Seibert)

By David Walsh in the USA:

An interview with historian Brenda Wineapple, author of books on Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson

“Writing is a solitary and private act … I’m going to say what I think is true”

13 August 2019

Historian Brenda Wineapple has authored a number of intriguing books about 19th-century American writers and social processes in particular.

We first encountered her work in the process of writing about Wild Nights with Emily, director Madeleine Olnek’s film about American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Olnek’s work concentrates almost exclusively on Dickinson’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, depicting an overpowering sexual relationship that is largely (or perhaps entirely) the product of Olnek’s imagination.

We suggested that Wild Nights with Emily was “a largely degrading work that obliterates or trivializes history, demeaning not only Dickinson, but also, in passing, the remarkable abolitionist and literary figure Thomas Wentworth Higginson.”

Olnek, for reasons of her own, chooses to transform Higginson into a self-important, condescending, repressive cartoon male, who simply doesn’t “get” Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson in 1846 or 1847

Wineapple’s White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2008), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, arrived as both an antidote and a breath of fresh air. The book deals meticulously and honestly with the contradictions and peculiarities of the mid-19th century period, the milieus to which Dickinson and Higginson belonged, and their personalities and trajectories. It pays tribute to Higginson’s remarkable activities and concerns, including his support for abolitionist John Brown, while noting at the same time, that he was a “man of limits, to be sure,” who “was gifted enough to sense what lay beyond him,” i.e., the full significance and originality of Dickinson’s poetry.

White Heat

The honesty and objectivity of Wineapple’s approach in White Heat finds expression as well in The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (2019). Coincidentally, the WSWS reviewed the book in June, only a few weeks after the comment on Wild Nights with Emily appeared.

The Impeachers treats the effort in 1868 to remove President Andrew Johnson, who had assumed office upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, because of Johnson’s anti-democratic and illegal efforts to defend the remnants of the slavocracy and defy the attempt by Congress to reorganize the rebel states to protect the former slaves.

Analysis of Johnson’s impeachment, as Eric London explained in his review of Wineapple’s book, “has long been dominated by apologists for the slavocracy who claim that the trial was led by vindictive radicals to punish Johnson for seeking ‘compromise’ with the former rebels. … Wineapple takes aim at the notion that the impeachment of Johnson was merely an example of ‘hyper-partisanship.’ She has written a book that cuts through the lies of the Lost Cause and Dunning School of historians.”

Wineapple has also written Hawthorne: A Life (2003), a major biography of the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, responsible for The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Marble Faun (1860).

She is the author as well of Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner (1989); Sister Brother Gertrude and Leo Stein (1996); and Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (2013). Wineapple edited The Selected Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier (2004) for the Library of America and the anthology, Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing (2010).

In addition, Whitman Speaks, her selection of the poet’s observations about writing, literature, America and what it means to be a maverick was published last spring in celebration of the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth.

Wineapple’s numerous honors include a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, two National Endowment Fellowships in the Humanities, and most recently an NEH Public Scholars Award. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians and regularly contributes to publications such as the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books.

Born in Boston and a graduate of Brandeis University, Wineapple teaches at the New School and Columbia University in New York City.

We spoke recently on the phone about a number of issues raised in her books. Eric London contributed the questions about The Impeachers.

* * * * *

David Walsh: This all began with a foolish movie, Wild Nights with Emily, which I suppose I do have to thank, in fact, for directing me toward Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and toward your remarkable book, White Heat.

I’m not going to put you on the spot about the film, but I hope the article indicated its unconvincing … character. In general, it seems to me contemporary artists have a much weakened “historical sense”, the ability to imagine social conditions and relationships different than their own.

Brenda Wineapple: Well, yes, if you actually looked more deeply into the past you wouldn’t have to foist contemporary views onto it. You could tease out perspectives; you could indicate how the past flows into and resonates today rather than superimpose contemporary attitudes and ideas on it. To do that suggests a lack of historical imagination, as you say, which is a problem.

DW: Emily Dickinson comes across as a brilliant figure, an almost terrifying figure. I say this half-jokingly, but when Higginson says, “I am glad not to live near her”, you wonder a little if she secluded herself in Amherst, Massachusetts not to be protected from other people, but to protect them from her.

BW: I really do feel that Higginson’s comment has been misread. It’s not that he couldn’t handle her, but rather that Dickinson was one of those people who was really exhausting; she took everything out of you because she was on fire, so it must have been enervating just to keep up with her. “She drained my nerve-power”, as he said. Her astonishing inventiveness, her quickness, her vision permeate not just the poetry but her letters, which are simply astonishing. So imagine what she must have been like in person.

And don’t forget that Higginson was a very unusual figure, given the times during which they both lived. Of course he wasn’t perfect, and he certainly wasn’t the genius Dickinson was, but that’s not the point. He was a committed abolitionist—and activist—during one of the most tumultuous and dangerous decades in American history.

DW: Your book does a great deal to resurrect or restore both figures, Higginson in particular. Dickinson is probably not in need of it, anyway.

BW: It seemed fascinating to me that you had these two characters, two individuals, not simply alive at the same moment but who formed a friendship that was important to both of them and lasted almost twenty-five years, right to the end of Dickinson’s life.

DW: Did you set out to do this, resurrect Higginson, or was this a need you discovered in the course of your research?

BW: I came to this book with a set of questions. I’ve always admired Dickinson and I had the conventional view of Higginson: he bowdlerized her, he ruined her poetry, he didn’t get her. But then I wondered why she was friends with him. And then I thought, if we admire her, which we do, if we think she was so perceptive, so brilliant in so many ways, then why don’t we look more carefully at her choice of friends? Because she chose so few. So she must have seen something in him that we didn’t see. So I began with those kinds of questions. So I didn’t set out to resurrect or restore him but to discover what we could learn about this man that would respect her choice.

Of course I knew something about Higginson because he was adjacent, so to speak, to the book I did on Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was of the same world, although Hawthorne would not have had anything do with him because of their different politics. And I’d done a little edition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poetry, and Whittier was himself a committed abolitionist, so he and Higginson sort of overlapped historically and therefore I’d heard of him apart from Emily Dickinson.

DW: When Dickinson wrote to Higginson: you saved my life, how do you take that? She wasn’t just flattering him.

BW: I don’t think so. Of course, she could be very coquettish, to use a 19th-century word. She wasn’t lying. She was hyperbolic though. I think she meant that he gave her something that no one else was really able to.

DW: What do you think that was?

BW: It’s hard to know. Dickinson constantly wanted him to come to visit her in Amherst. Even though she knew he didn’t entirely understand her poetry, she must have respected him. And he was some sort of representative as well of the outside world, while she penetrated the interior world, “where the meanings are”, as she once wrote. And then to use a trite word, Higginson represented a kind of “otherness” that she must have perceived she shared with him. Neither of them, in their very different ways, represented the status quo.

But it is very difficult to know precisely. We don’t have a lot of his letters to her. We have enough, but not that many. So perhaps he provided a kind of empathy that had nothing to do with his in-depth understanding of the poetry. But he appreciated it—and her. He knew she was a genuine maverick, and she knew he knew.

Plus, let’s not forget Higginson was an unusual guy. He was so enamored of [Henry David] Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers [1849] when he received a galley that he took a train up to Concord to see Thoreau. Who does that?

DW: The relationship of artists to social life and to great events like the Civil War is very complex. Higginson’s relationship to the Civil War, of course, is quite clear. The cases of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Thoreau too are pretty clear-cut, Walt Whitman as well perhaps. The relationship of Dickinson, Hawthorne, Herman Melville to big events is more oblique. But I don’t think Dickinson was removed from her period of history. And I can’t help but think that was part of her interest in Higginson.

BW: Absolutely. She knew who he was. He was writing about slave revolts, writing very radical pieces in the Atlantic. Her family received the Atlantic. She read his pieces. These writers were very connected to what was going on historically. To suggest that Dickinson had no consciousness of the Civil War is just silly. Her father had been in Congress. He was bringing that home all the time. I don’t know how you could not be conscious of that.

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum)

Hawthorne is another case. He was a close personal friend of Franklin Pierce, the future president, who is a horror from our point of view. Hawthorne really loved the guy, and dedicated a book to him. Emerson was so disgusted that he tore out the dedication in his copy of the book. We don’t know enough about Melville because many of his papers are gone. In his book of poems, Battle-Pieces [1866], Melville has an afterword in which he speaks, to put it simply, about forgiving the South. He was also a lifelong Democrat. Whitman was too.
Herman Melville, 1860

DW: In terms of Dickinson—during what other period could a poet, a supposedly dainty poet, have written the line, “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—”?

BW: She’s thinking about guns!

DW: An incredible line, which you suggest may have been inspired by Higginson’s essay about the Nat Turner slave revolt.

American literature reached a new height in the pre-revolutionary decade of the 1850s. Have you thought about what it was and how it was that artists were working with such intensity and urgency in the period before and perhaps during the Civil War? In any case, something was sending off powerful impulses.

BW: I definitely think so. Dickinson wasn’t active, so to speak, in any conventional sense. But you could say she was in some way seeing Higginson’s activity as an extension of herself.

DW: Exactly. He was in some way her representative in that other, more public world. She was such a powerful personality that I think she was hoping—and I don’t mean this in a negative way—she could will him, direct him in some way. And probably she did!

BW: He did have to resist her somewhat. As we said, her magnetic force was huge. But it’s interesting that after he wrote the essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in the Atlantic magazine [in April 1862], he received a huge number of letters; Dickinson wasn’t the only person reaching out to him. But she was the only one he really responded to.

Hawthorne - A Life

DW: Nathaniel Hawthorne is another remarkable figure. Politically, he certainly isn’t attractive. A Democrat and no friend of the abolitionists. But a brilliant writer. The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables are milestones.

BW: He was a brilliant writer. Someone said, “Hawthorne can see in the dark.” He really could. But, to go back to the issue of lacking a historical sense, we also have this almost childish wish to make the writers that we think of as remarkable, as in the case of Hawthorne, conform to whatever our historical, political, social principles happen to be. And he doesn’t.

DW: Art and social life have a very complicated relationship.

BW: Hawthorne was most comfortable being by himself, writing, and yet his friends were people involved in politics and, in many cases, Southern-sympathizing politics: John O’Sullivan, to an extent Horatio Bridge, and of course Franklin Pierce. These were dear friends.

DW: Coming out of that history of Puritanism and severity in Salem, and then reflecting on it so intensely and self-critically, it’s not so odd that he was tortured. It would be odd if he weren’t.

BW: I’m from New England too. You can’t get out of there without being tortured.

DW: They’re very different, but both Dickinson and Hawthorne have this profound attachment to the past, they’re immersed and embedded in the past, to a certain extent, but something in the future is also pulling them very strongly.

BW: I think that’s absolutely true. This pull—of the past and of the future—creates a tremendous conflict for them but also, perhaps, a rewarding and enriching one.

DW: You have these very lovely sentences: “Had Hawthorne squeezed refractory emotions into channels much too narrow? No: those channels helped to create emotion by harnessing what they unleashed.” Could you perhaps explain them a little?

BW: I think it’s precisely what we’re talking about. With Hawthorne, there was a terrible conflict, a sense that he was almost destroyed by what made him great. He was able to use it, up to a point, but again it was also so depleting in many ways and he had to channel it into a form that was almost 18th century in style that then recreated this emotion for the reader.

DW: You also point to the utopian, visionary element in Hawthorne, passages where he sounds downright revolutionary. There’s this in The House of the Seven Gables that struck me: “[Holgrave] had that sense, or inward prophecy … that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime. It seemed to Holgrave … that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.”

This quasi-revolutionary vision of tearing down the past, thrusting institutions out of the way and so forth is immediately followed by a wretched argument for gradualism and fatalism:

“His [Holgrave’s] error lay in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view whether he himself should contend for it or against it. … He would still have faith in man’s brightening destiny, and perhaps love him all the better, as he should recognize his helplessness in his own behalf; and the haughty faith, with which he began life, would be well bartered for a far humbler one at its close, in discerning that man’s best directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the sole worker of realities.”

BW: It’s interesting, because it’s exactly what Hester Prynne feels in the thirteenth chapter of The Scarlet Letter, “Another View of Hester”, which I write about.

Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

Hester essentially thinks, everything needs to be torn down and the relationship between men and woman has to start all over again to be effective, just and fair both to women and to men. It’s an enormously radical vision. And she’s part of Hawthorne since he created her. But then, to a certain extent, he punishes her, precisely for having that vision. In the same way, he sends Holgrave off to this pointless future, marrying Phoebe and living happily ever after—which I don’t believe Holgrave does.

That is, Hawthorne was attracted, almost violently, to this vision of a new world, which by the way was very much in the air. Bronson Alcott and others were talking about or planning or trying actually to live this new world. But then Hawthorne condemns it in his novel The Blithedale Romance [1852], which was about the Brook Farm experiment.

DW: The honest artist is not simply the sum-total of his social and political views. You write: “Of all writers, female or male, in nineteenth-century America, Hawthorne created a woman, Hester Prynne, who still stands, statuesque, the heroine par excellence impaled by courage, conservatism, consensus: take your pick. Yet there she is.”

BW: It’s kind of astonishing.

DW: We don’t remember or value Hawthorne because of his seedy dealings with the Democratic Party, with Pierce, we remember him because of that, because of Hester Prynne and the others he created—or discovered.

BW: That’s his real, objective contribution to us. The irony is that he made this contribution, this statuesque and strong woman, almost against his will. He wants to create her, and then doesn’t quite want to. But the truth is that nobody in American fiction is quite like her.

The Impeachers

DW: I also have a few questions about The Impeachers. Can you tell us a little more about the political program of Senator Ben Wade from Ohio and his career following the failed effort to remove President Andrew Johnson in 1868?

BW: Wade, of course, was singled out by Karl Marx because he was the radical of radicals, who then more or less disappeared from our consciousness. Other radicals such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens disappeared to a certain extent too, but not entirely. But in the late 1860s, and certainly beyond, an emerging conservatism erased Ben Wade. And don’t forget that by 1868 he had lost his Senate seat.

Wade was born, I believe, in 1800, so he was 68 by this time, which was considered rather old then. In 1868, he went back to Ohio, because his term in the Senate was at an end. But Wade had been a tremendous force in Congress—and even one of the reasons that an impeached Andrew Johnson was acquitted. People were afraid of Wade. Given Lincoln’s assassination, if Johnson, his replacement, had been convicted in the Senate, Wade, as president pro tempore of the Senate, would have become president for the remainder of Johnson’s term.

With the failure of the impeachment of Johnson, it not only became clear Wade was not going to be president, but neither did he really have a shot at being vice president on the Grant ticket, which he probably would have had if impeachment had succeeded. At that point, he no longer had a political career or a political future.

Benjamin F. Wade

Wade scandalized many people. He was so radical that he actually thought women should have the vote. Hah! In my book I mention that one of the “terrible” rumors circulating was that if Wade were in the White House, he might put Susan B. Anthony in his cabinet. That horrified certain people.

DW: How did the impeachment process and its fallout change the political character of the two parties, if it did?

BW: It definitely changed the character of the Republican Party. The group of moderate Republicans, who initially supported impeachment but who then backed away from it, became the core of what was called the Liberal Republican Party, formally organized in 1872.

The Liberal Republican Party, as opposed to the Radical Republicans, was the forerunner of today’s Republican Party. They were an elite group who believed they were the best men in the country, and the government should only be run by the best men. They considered that they knew best. They hated Ulysses S. Grant, whom they regarded as both a radical—and an embarrassment. They were much more content with Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, which promised the end of Reconstruction.

These Liberal Republicans were the basis for the free-market Republican Party that we know today. For not until later did the Democratic Party become the modern Democratic Party. The Democrats of the 1850s and ’60s … it’s almost unthinkable what they represented, which for many of them was a continuation of slavery or the perpetuation of its noxious legacy. Yet Andrew Johnson was toxic to them; they weren’t going to nominate him in 1868, for sure. But they nominated two candidates, one of whom was a non-entity, Horatio Seymour, governor of New York, and then the other, for vice president, one of the most outspoken and violent white supremacists of his era, Francis Blair of Missouri. Blair’s rhetoric out-Johnsoned Johnson. They went down to defeat, fortunately. Grant won.

Andrew Johnson

The Democrats didn’t reconstitute themselves for years. Or perhaps they never did entirely, because it was always the southern Democratic wing that was very much in power in the party up until the middle of the 20th century.

DW: In our review, the WSWS emphasized the significance of the emergence of the working class as a political force and its impact on American politics during this period. Were the personalities in your book aware of this?

BW: Many of them didn’t live that long. In many cases, they didn’t outlive this immediate era, the era of the Civil War. Obviously, to someone like Thaddeus Stevens and Ben Wade, the relationship between capital and labor, if you want to use those terms, had to change once you no longer had slavery. Because wage slavery had been an issue from the 1850s up until the war; in fact the exploitation of wage laborers was a Democratic Party argument against the Republicans: you can’t talk about slavery as exploitation; we treat the slaves well, but it’s factory workers who are exploited. So the radicals were aware of the labor question but not so much in terms of what was to occur in the cities or with the rise of the railroads, in particular, especially after the war, which really changed everything. They didn’t foresee all that and what it would mean for the country. And, as I said, many of them didn’t live long enough to address these issues.

But they were conscious of them, especially as they would affect the South after the war. That’s why someone like Thaddeus Stevens wanted to confiscate the planters’ land and redistribute it—redistribute the wealth—to those who had actually labored on it. Still, many old-time abolitionists, who had been around a long time, may have found it difficult to adopt a new outlook when conditions changed—and labor was no longer “free”.

Take someone like Higginson, who was lost for a time. He eventually pulled himself together toward the end of the century, but he didn’t really understand the problems represented by strikes and labor. Far from it. He only became outspoken again when the issue of Jim Crow became dominant in the 1890s. He certainly spoke out against the racism of, say, William Jennings Bryan. And he was a definite anti-imperialist.

DW: Not to beat around the bush, although I already have, one of the things that struck me about White Heat was its honesty, whether I agreed with every idea and assessment or not. You write about men and women without cant or jargon. …

BW: Frankly I have no idea. I don’t see the world that way. It’s an odd thing—when you sit down at the desk, especially after having written several books—the more experience you have, you realize that no matter what you do, somebody’s not going to approve of it, not approve of you. Writing then is a solitary and private act—and then you just say, damn it, I’m going to say what I think is true.

DW: The problem is, most people don’t operate that way.

BW: I can’t speak for them. I just have to be honest with myself. Because I feel that if I don’t say what I really think, and I’m criticized or it doesn’t work, then I’ll know it was my own fault. When I finish something, I feel that, well, perhaps this or that reader won’t like it, but I’ll stand by it. Perhaps in five years I won’t feel that way, I’ll decide I was wrong, but now I believe it. That’s how I manage to sleep at night.

And then there’s this: when I’m confronted, let’s say, by a poem of Dickinson’s, and I am overwhelmed, I think, what the hell, I may not understand it perfectly, does anyone entirely? Isn’t that in part what makes it great?—it speaks to so very many of us in a language that’s almost impossible to translate. That makes me feel better and allows me to go ahead and say what I get out of it.

Of course I enjoy what I do. To a certain extent, I feel free when I’m writing, or I try to feel free. In a social situation, you can’t always say what you think. But when it’s just you and the piece of paper, that’s different … and perhaps even more challenging.

United States author Toni Morrison, RIP

This 7 August 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Toni Morrison: Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni & Sonia Sanchez Pay Tribute

Toni Morrison, one of the nation’s most influential writers, died this week at the age of 88 from complications of pneumonia. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her classic work “Beloved”.

Much of Morrison’s writing focused on the Black female experience in America, and her writing style honored the rhythms of Black oral tradition. Her work was deeply concerned with race and history, especially the sin of transatlantic slavery and the potentially restorative power of community. In 2012, President Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We speak with three legendary writers and close friends of Toni Morrison: Angela Davis, author and activist; Nikki Giovanni, poet, activist and educator; and Sonia Sanchez, award-winning poet.

This 7 August 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni & Sonia Sanchez on the Crisis in America & the Death of Toni Morrison

Legendary writers and activists Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez discuss the gun violence epidemic in the United States in the wake of the latest mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Giovanni, who teaches at Virginia Tech, talks about the massacre at her institution in 2007 that left 32 people dead and wounded another 17, and her efforts to warn administrators about the student who would carry out one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. The three women also continue their discussion from Part 1, reflecting on the life and legacy of their late friend Toni Morrison, who died Monday at age 88.

Poet Walt Whitman’s bicentenary in New York

This music video from the USA says about itself:

“Wood Odors”
For SSA Choir & Harp
Music by Peter Nocella
Text by Walt Whitman
In celebration of Whitman’s Bicentenary

Performed by:
The Nazareth Academy Chorale
Katherine Chmelko, Director
Thérèse Hurley, Harp
Madeline Parkes, Piano
May 23, 2019

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

Two celebrations of Walt Whitman’s bicentenary in New York City

29 July 2019

Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy, at Morgan Library and Museum, through September 15, 2019

Walt Whitman: America’s Poet, at New York Public Library, Central Branch, through July 27, 2019

The 19th century saw a flowering of American poetry. Among the many important figures of the period—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson—Walt Whitman occupies a special place. Some reasons for his particular fame are suggested by the names of two exhibitions currently on view in New York City in observance of the 200th anniversary of his birth. He was the foremost “bard of democracy,” and he has often been called “America’s Poet.”

Walt Whitman photographed by Mathew Brady

The Morgan Library and Museum has drawn on its own holdings of Whitman’s works and memorabilia, and also includes some material in its exhibition from the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The New York Public Library has one of the largest collections of Whitman’s correspondence, original editions and other materials. Both of these exhibitions are well worth a visit, as an introduction to the work and the continuing legacy of this trailblazing figure. Whitman met with relatively little critical or commercial success until fairly late in his lifetime, but his unique contribution as both a poet and a very public figure evokes more interest than ever, and has much to say to the world today.

Born in Long Island in 1819, Whitman was brought up in Brooklyn, long before it merged in 1898 to form New York City in its present boundaries. His enormous literary ambition found its first poetic expression in Leaves of Grass, just 12 poems, published on July 4, 1855. That small book, however, emerged from many years of varied experiences in a city that was booming in the decades before the Civil War. Whitman was a printer’s apprentice, then a journeyman printer, followed by many other jobs, including journalist, teacher and newspaper editor. While still in his 20s, he wrote and edited for many New York and Brooklyn newspapers. The Public Library exhibition displays some samples of Whitman’s early journalism.

Whitman later wrote that Leaves of Grass “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for 15 years, with an intensity, an eagerness, and an abandon, probably never equaled.”

Walt Whitman, 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

Whitman was driven to find expression for his feelings and sentiments in the language of poetry. Leaves of Grass is often celebrated as a paean to subjectivity and individualism, but Whitman’s own words about “absorbing a million people” show that this is a very one-sided appreciation. He wrote of himself as a part of the whole: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” “Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me,” he wrote. “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it.”

Leaves of Grass stood apart from most of what was being written both in form and in content. Whitman’s free verse was unusual, and it was accompanied by the use of the vernacular, of sensual language and imagery that was considered “vulgar” by the custodians of cultural criticism.

F.O. Matthiessen in his American Renaissance (1941) suggested that, according to Whitman’s way of thinking, “Living speech could come to a man only through his absorption in the life surrounding him. He must learn that the final decisions of language are not made by dictionary makers but by ‘the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.’”

Whitman’s form was wedded to a democratic content, poetry that took as its subject the lives of ordinary working people, as demonstrated by some of the most famous lines of Leaves of Grass:

I I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass…

Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land…

I am large, I contain multitudes…

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck…

Whitman’s poetry did not at first meet with great interest or acclaim. A sign of the fame that awaited the newly published poet came in the rapturous response from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous writer and founder of New England Transcendentalism. The exhibition at the Morgan Library includes an autograph copy of the letter sent by Emerson to Whitman on July 21, 1855, only weeks after publication of the poems, in which Emerson wrote, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed…I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

An especially interesting section at the Morgan exhibition displays an autograph manuscript of an essay entitled, “The Eighteenth Presidency!” This work was written in 1855-56, as a response to the presidential race involving Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and John C. Frémont, right on the heels of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. “The Eighteenth Presidency!”, though not published in Whitman’s lifetime, sheds some light on the poet’s social and political concerns during this period. In the essay Whitman refers to the “crawling, serpentine men” leading the country, betraying its ideals with their support for slavery.

A loyal Democrat who had brothers named after Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, he was not an abolitionist and there were times when he voiced ignorant views on race, but his anti-slavery views had gradually strengthened in the decade preceding the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed by Congress a few years earlier, mandating the return of escaped slaves to their masters. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 laid the basis for the extension of slavery into the territories seeking statehood. The ruthlessness of the pro-slavery elements, their frenzy born of desperation and weakness, contributed to the radicalization of millions, including Whitman.

The Civil War was only a few years off. The poet sensed that a reckoning was coming. Although he supported Democrat Stephen Douglas in his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln, by the time of Lincoln’s election Whitman was an enthusiastic adherent of the new president.

The lifelong struggle of Whitman to add to and continually produce new editions of Leaves of Grass, which grew to 438 pages in the “deathbed edition” published soon after his passing, was shaped by the struggle against slavery, by the Civil War and its aftermath. Whitman, in notes written in 1859, had called himself, in characteristically outspoken and immodest language, “the Bard of Democracy”.

The poet called the war “the very center, circumference, umbilicus, of my whole career.” He traveled to Washington and settled there, working as a visitor and volunteer nurse at hospitals. He later said that he had made over 600 visits and ministered in one way or another to nearly 100,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Dozens of poems on the Civil War followed, in Drum Taps, published in 1865.

Incorporated into the growing Leaves of Grass, these included “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, two of his most famous and popular poems, written in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Lincoln. Whitman is supposed to have said he was almost sorry he wrote “O Captain!” because, with its more conventional rhyme and imagery, it had drawn so much attention away from the rest of his work.

In 1860-61 Whitman had published a third edition of Leaves of Grass, with 146 new poems. These included celebrations of what the poet called “manly love”. The sensuality of the earlier poems had now blossomed into more openly homoerotic themes, and critics were scandalized. The poet, of course, never discussed his private life. The term for homosexuality had not even been coined at that time, and did not come into usage in the US until some decades later.

The Morgan Library exhibition, however, does refer to the intimate friendship of Whitman and Peter Doyle, the Irish immigrant streetcar conductor whom he met in Washington in 1865. The two were inseparable for eight years, as the exhibition notes. Included here is the well-known photograph of Whitman and Doyle, along with some correspondence with the man whom the poet addressed as “my darling boy.”

The poet’s work during the war contributed to his growing reputation as the “Good Gray Poet”. In his later years Whitman was especially associated with the memory of Lincoln. He gave annual lectures commemorating the assassination of the martyred president. The Morgan exhibition includes a printed ticket for the lecture given by Whitman at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1887. Doyle, who had been at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was killed, had given Whitman the details he needed to make the tragic events come alive. Remarkably, the audience when Whitman spoke in 1887 included Cuban revolutionary José Martí, author Mark Twain and industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Leaves of Grass (Boston- Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States, 1860) (New York Public Library)

Another section of this exhibition notes Whitman’s interest in the still young medium of photography. Over the decades he was the subject of 130 professional photos, including the famous 1854 daguerreotype that was used in the first edition of
Leaves of Grass, the 1865 portrait by Matthew Brady and later depictions of the “Good Gray Poet” as an aging and kindly symbol of the struggles of the recent past.

Whitman, like his almost exact contemporary Frederick Douglass, gave eloquent voice to the revolutionary and democratic impulses that found expression in the war that put an end to chattel slavery. Like Douglass as well, he had difficulty orienting himself in the decades following the Civil War. He remained a radical, a humanist, but he could see little alternative to the America of the Gilded Age, other than an America of artisan craftsmen that was rapidly disappearing.

Walt Whitman, 1887

During the last years of his life in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman’s comments were taken down by the much younger Horace Traubel, who eventually accumulated some 5,000 pages of material drawn from their conversations. The editor of a recently published abridged version of the material (Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, 2019), Brenda Wineapple, comments that Traubel “pushed back against some of Whitman’s biases, both men enjoying the give-and-take. For Traubel was a committed socialist, which Whitman decidedly was not. ‘How much have you looked into the subject of the economic origin of things we call vices, evils, sins?’ Traubel gently needled his friend. Smiling, Whitman replied with good humor, ‘You know how I shy at problems, duties, consciences: you seem to like to trip me with your pertinent impertinences.’”

Left-wing literary critic Newton Arvin in Whitman (1938) was quite insistent that Whitman was a socialist, but this over-simplifies a complicated historical process and substitutes an element of wishful thinking for concrete social and intellectual realities.

Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, 1887-88

The Public Library exhibition contains an interesting section on the impact of Whitman on American culture. A wall is given over to copies of books of poetry and prose by writers inspired or shaped by Whitman: Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg and many others.

Also available are brief audio excerpts from musical figures influenced by Whitman, including Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and Kurt Weill, who composed “Three Whitman Songs” in 1942, just after the entry of the US into the Second World War. …

The public library exhibition prominently features the following profound excerpt from the preface to the very first edition of Leaves of Grass: “Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is…The greatest poet…places himself where the future becomes present.” Clearly Whitman wrote with a sense of history, of his own place in history, of the connection between the present and the past and with an optimism about the future.

While it may be appropriate to call Whitman “America’s poet”, that title should not be seen as an expression of a narrow nationalism. His American nationalism, though contradictory, was not of a chauvinist or exclusionary character. In “Salut Au Monde,” one of his poems in Leaves of Grass, he offers a fraternal greeting to the world:

What cities the light or warmth penetrates
I penetrate those cities myself
All islands to which birds wing their way
I wing my way myself.

Toward you all, in America’s name,
I raise high the perpendicular hand,
I make the signal,
To remain after me in sight forever,
For all the haunts and homes of men.

Indeed, Matthiessen in American Renaissance points out that Whitman’s “belief in the need to speak not merely for Americans but for the workers of all lands seems to have given the impetus for his odd habit of introducing random words from other languages, to the point of talking about ‘the ouvrier class’!”

Anne Frank, and refugees hiding from Trump

This 2007 video from the USA says about itself:

Interview with actress Natalie Portman | Diary of Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank was a dramatization of the book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the personal account of a teenage Jewish girl in hiding with her family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. The play first opened in Boston in October 1997. Anne Frank was Natalie’s Broadway debut.

By Jenny Singer in United States Jewish daily Forward:

Natalie Portman Compares Anne Frank To Current Migrants Hiding From ICE

July 18, 2019

In 1997, novelist and cultural critic Cynthia Ozick wrote an article for the New Yorker criticizing the “distortion” of the historical and literary figure of Anne Frank.

“Complicit in this shallowly upbeat view”, she wrote, are two unlikely confederates — Frank’s father Otto, and a promising child actress named Natalie Portman.

Portman starred on Broadway in a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” that same year as a 16-year-old, and the comment she made about Frank’s diary that damned her to Ozick was this: “It’s funny, it’s hopeful, and she’s a happy person.”

On Tuesday, Portman, now 38 and one of the most famous actors alive, posted on Instagram about studying the role of Frank, comparing the experience of Frank and her family hiding in the Secret Annex to that of migrants hiding from Immigration And Custom Enforcement agents.

“When I was 16 I visited Anne Frank’s house with Miep Gies, the woman who bravely hid Anne and her family when the Nazis were rounding up Jews in Amsterdam and much of Europe”, Portman captioned a snapshot of herself as a teen, standing in front of the trick-staircase that opened the door to the annex. “Today, I shudder at the thought of a young girl hiding somewhere in my own country, afraid to turn on her light or make a noise or play outside lest she get rounded up by our government.” She added the hashtags, “notinmyname” and “notinmycountry.”

The Trump administration moved forward over the weekend with plans to target and remove undocumented immigrants who have received final orders for deportation. Several publications have reported on migrants who cannot afford to miss work yet are terrified to leave their houses, wary of being picked up by ICE and never seeing their homes again. Portman may have been indirectly referencing the story of Liza, a teenager in Passaic, New Jersey, who told the New York Times that she and her family huddled in their house with the lights off as ICE agents waited outside. Elena, a 41-year-old housekeeper in Miami, told BuzzFeed that she and her teenage daughter and husband leave the lights off even when they are home, fearing that ICE officers will seize them and send them to Nicaragua, even though her daughter is an American citizen who has never spent time in that country.

Portman draws a direct parallel between those women — literally in the dark, crammed into small spaces with their family members, trying to stay quiet and undiscovered — and Anne Frank, in hiding during the Holocaust.

One has to wonder what Ozick, now in her 90s, would think of this. Portman obviously didn’t forget the lessons she learned while portraying Frank. … Portman’s voice adds glamour to the chorus of the young Jews of the “Never Again Is Now” movement, and non-Jews like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who compared detention centers where migrants are being held in inhumane conditions to concentration camps.

Portman tagged a series of non-profit groups that aid immigrants and refugees, including the International Rescue Committee, Families Together, Together Rising, the ACLU, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services of Texas, encouraging her followers to help out.

One inspiration might come from the words of Miep Gies herself, the Dutch woman who helped shelter the Franks and their compatriots, died in 2010, thirteen years after she took Portman on a tour of the Annex. When she was alive, she liked to say of her decision, “I want everyone to know that I am a very common and cautious woman and definitely not a genius or dare-devil. I did help like so many others who ran the same or more risk than me.”

“It was necessary,” she said. “So I helped.”

Babi Yar, Shostakovich’s anti-fascist symphony, performed

This video from the USA says about itself:

Preview for Shostakovich‘s Babi Yar Remembering the Holocaust | April 27 & 28, 2019

In a powerful performance not to be missed, MSU [Michigan State University] Symphony Orchestra, Choirs, soloist Mark Rucker, baritone, and a trio of expert scholars present Shostakovich 13, Babi Yar, with selections from Davidson’s I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

By Nancy Hanover in the USA:

Michigan State University performs stirring rendition of Babi Yar, Dmitri Shostakovich’s anti-fascist symphony

1 May 2019

I am
each old man
here shot dead.

I am
every child
here shot dead.

Nothing in me
shall ever forget!

The ‘Internationale’,
let it thunder
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage,
all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.

For that reason
I am a true Russian!
[From “Babi Yar” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translation: George Reavey]

After nearly two years of preparation, the Michigan State University (MSU) Orchestra and Choral Ensembles performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor, based on Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” (1961), last Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan, and Sunday at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall. It featured well-known baritone Mark Rucker, who also serves as professor of voice in the MSU College of Music.

Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” is a poem that memorializes the Nazi massacre of 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar, just outside Kiev, Ukraine, on September 29-30, 1941, one of the single largest instances of mass murder carried out during the Holocaust. It took place soon after the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The rapidly intensifying political atmosphere today—including the rise of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism nationally and internationally—heightened the emotional and artistic significance for musicians and listeners alike. One of the most enduring and powerful musical protests against fascism and anti-Semitism, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 was performed in Detroit one day after another brutal anti-Semitic murder at Chabad of Poway, just north of San Diego, on the final day of Passover. The killer issued a statement that denounced Jews “for their role in Marxism and communism.”

The contemporary resonance of MSU’s production “Babi Yar, Remembering the Holocaust” was noted by several speakers who introduced Shostakovich’s work. They referenced the fascist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, the terror bombing in Sri Lanka and the slaughter of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Concert-goers included more than a dozen Holocaust survivors and a busload of older members of the Jewish Community Center, as well as many young musicians.

Socialist Equality Party campaigners distributed materials on the rise of the fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the fight against the extreme right and were warmly received by many. “It’s not just in Germany, it’s here—it’s here”, one older concert-goer repeated, with unmistakable alarm.

The concert began with Charles Davidson’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” (1968), in slightly abbreviated form. The piece is written for orchestra and treble choir and based on poems by Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. The children were among the 150,000 Jews imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp (also known as Theresienstadt). After the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the Nazis converted the Czech town of Terezin into a Jewish prison. It was not an extermination camp, but about 33,000 would die of hunger and disease there. The Soviet army liberated the camp in 1945.

The evocative poetic lines of the children were displayed above the orchestra and chorus. “The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads, To bury itself deep somewhere in our memories. We’ve suffered here more than enough, Here in this clot of grief and shame” begins the poem “Terezin.”

The piece is alternatively haunting and mournful and lively and hopeful, as the powerful choirs give voice to the children’s contradictory feelings. Davidson, trained as a cantor and with a doctorate in sacred music, has created an ethereal and entrancing melodic sound in this now widely performed piece.

Sophia Franklin

Sophia Franklin, a Music Education and Physics major at MSU, who sang alto in the 100-plus member chorus, later told a reporter from the World Socialist Web Site, “Our piece was about Terezin. It was a concentration camp, but designed by the Nazis to be the public ‘face’ of the camps for visits by the Red Cross. It looked like a nice camp, but really it was just as bad. People were disappearing. They [the Jews] knew there was something very wrong even though the murders weren’t happening there. They were living in constant fear.”

Echoing the thoughts of many of those in the hall, Sophia said, “I have learned about the history of the Holocaust in middle and high school. This has happened before. Can’t we learn from that?”

In one of the concert’s introductory lectures, MSU Assistant Professor Dr. Amy Simon explained that the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, beginning a war of annihilation. Recognizing the genocidal implications, Simon said, approximately 100,000 Jews fled Kiev before the fascist occupation. Those who remained were the sick, the elderly and many children. These Jews were forced to walk to a ravine on the outskirts, now called Babi Yar, lined up in groups and systematically machine-gunned to death.

After the wholesale slaughter of the Jews, who constituted the largest proportion of the dead, the killing would continue for months abetted by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Tens of thousands of Communist Party members, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and other anti-Nazis also perished there. It is estimated that the total number of dead thrown into the pit at Babi Yar would grow to more than 100,000 during the years of German occupation. Of the 6 million Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis, more than 2 million died in the Soviet Union as a result of mass executions similar to that at Babi Yar.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem “Babi Yar” was written in protest. It begins, “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone. I am afraid. Today, I am as old, As the entire Jewish race itself.”

The poem is a brilliant and defiant attack on both anti-Semitism and the Stalinist bureaucracy. The nationalist bureaucracy pandered to anti-Semitism and was hostile to its exposure; it opposed any remembrance of the genocidal treatment of the Jews, insisting there be no special mention of the Nazis’ determination to eradicate Jewry. Yevtushenko’s poem laments, “O, Russia of my heart, I know that you, Are international, by inner nature. But often those whose hands are steeped in filth, Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.” Unsurprisingly, the poem was officially denounced by Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Kevin Bartig, MSU associate professor of music, who also spoke before the production, related the extraordinary first exchange between the poet and composer. Shostakovich, he explained, approached Yevtushenko for permission to set “Babi Yar” to music. The poet immediately agreed, and Shostakovich, relieved, then told him the piece was already composed.

Bartig recounted Yevtushenko’s words when he first heard the composition, “Some of my poems were set before, but the music hardly ever coincided with the melody I heard in my inner ear when writing my poem. I hope it doesn’t sound like conceit, but if I were able to write music, I would have written exactly the way Shostakovich did. By some magic, telepathic insight he seems to have pulled the melody out of me and recorded it in musical notation.”

Wonderful and apt words! Sitting in the audience of this concert, one felt an emotional and seamless unity between the music and words—each heightening the power of the other.

Bartig noted that there were attempts to prevent the premiere of the 13th Symphony in 1962, but “it was a sign of the times, that the idea of censoring a performance—as would certainly have been the case a decade earlier [prior to Stalin’s death]—would have been more of a provocation or scandal than allowing it to go on.” This was during the period of the so-called Thaw in the USSR.

The music scholar noted, “The work is a meditation on repression, from anti-Semitism to the take-down of self-interested bureaucrats in the final movement. It was a risky project in the USSR. Even a few years earlier, Shostakovich might not have risked it. …

“Stylistically, Shostakovich is himself as ever here using a tonal idiom, dressed up with the things that make his voice so distinctive: creating dissonances, exaggerated contrasts, and sarcasm.” He concluded by noting, “The themes we confront in the 13th, which sadly remain relevant in 2019, make the work one of the most unsettling and powerful in the symphonic repertoire.”

Explaining his decision to create the work, Shostakovich said, “I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.”

The piece is not easily classified. Requiring a bass soloist, men’s chorus and large orchestra, it has five movements. Babi Yar has been variously described as a choral symphony, a song cycle or a giant cantata. The first section, “Babi Yar”, the Adagio, is a funereal elegy, opening with a solemn chime, dramatically invoking the Dreyfus affair in France (1894-1906), the savage Bialystok pogrom of 1906 and the story of Anne Frank. The emotional music moves from the spiritual to the literal, in the breaking down of Anne Frank’s door. The use of the bass soloist, the impressive Mark Rucker in this case, a male chorus and the frequent effective use of chimes and bells is widely attributed to the influence of 19th century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.

The second movement, “Humour”, is a livelier piece, but its message is just as pointed: oppression cannot silence the masses and their mocking of authority. It ends, “three cheers for humour—he’s a brave fellow.” The third (“In the Store”) is an ode to Soviet women, endlessly forced to line up to secure provisions for their families, ending with a quasi-religious motif. The fourth movement (“Fears”) evokes the menacing atmosphere under Stalinism, opening with a highly chromatic tuba solo that anticipates the composer’s later experiments with twelve-tone dissonance. “Career”, the final movement, condemns censorship and the ever-present Stalinist toadies with a lopsided opening waltz and beautiful woodwind solos, ending with a chilling final strike of the chime. It makes a bitter analogy to the Catholic Church’s trial and imprisonment of Galileo.

Attending the Orchestra Hall event, Joseph Jankowski, a student at the Detroit Institute for Musical Education, told us, “I knew this would be powerful. But when the conductor lowered the baton, no one clapped. Then everyone started clapping and didn’t want to stop—that was amazing.

“It was a beautiful portrayal and 100 percent relevant. Humanity-wise we face a serious issue today in this country and around the world. Events like this are extremely important because they should serve as a reminder that not all is as it should be. Large events like the Holocaust—even smaller events like Sandy Hook—we’ve allowed them to happen. We forget.”

“It was amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Edie, another audience member, “A person just feels more emotional about it all [in the setting of] such impressive music.”

International Youth and Students for Socialist Equality (IYSSE) member James said he was deeply moved by both the music and poems: “In Charles Davidson’s piece, the first poem, ‘I’d Like to Go Away Alone’, began with heavenly violin strings that captured the feeling of hope. But when the alto choir sang ‘Somewhere into the far unknown there, where no one kills another’, the vocals were a musical suggestion of such an un-worldly place.”

He continued, “The lyrics captured the feelings of children who had to watch this tragedy as it happened. … The gong and flute were used a lot to symbolize the blows that Nazi soldiers used against the Jewish prisoners of war. The orchestra members walked off in a single file line to symbolize what the Jewish people experienced at that time in these concentration camps.”

James also noted, “The [Shostakovich] music really felt uneasy, as the poem portrays things. The baritone singing, ‘Let the Internationale thunder as the last anti-Semites on earth are buried’ had me in tears. I hope the working class has more access to cultural events like this one in the future. This was a great experience for me.”

“The greatness of Shostakovich,” Fred Mazelis notes in his WSWS article on the composer’s legacy, was “to reflect the great struggles of his time, to find the musical language, in abstract, personal and emotional terms, through which to express not only his personal travail, but that of many millions of others.”

Many of those of us who attended the soul-stirring MSU performance would strongly concur. Indeed, the struggles of his time remain the struggles of our own.

The author also recommends:

The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) and the fate of the ‘60s generation
[3 May 2017]

Berlin exhibition—“Mass Shootings: The Holocaust from the Baltic to the Black Sea 1941-1944”
[28 October 2016]

The legacy of Dmitri Shostakovich
[7 April 2000]