Our Reply to Violence

By Maia Jasper White

After the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, a Leonard Bernstein quotation began popping up in my Facebook feed and email inbox.

It felt true. It also felt hollow.

It encouraged and validated me. It also made me angry.

I was proud of my colleagues in the arts for floating this sentiment at that time. And yet, doing so seemed strangely distasteful and disingenuous. (The fact that this coincided with end-of-year fundraising appeals didn’t help matters.)

I went on to judge myself for being ungenerous towards said colleagues. And for not proclaiming the power of the arts at equal volume. Yet I also gave myself props for taking art for what it is, and not endowing it with over-reaching powers. For seeing that terror and ugliness in the world is a much bigger problem than art alone can ever hope to solve. In my mind, few things undermine the true power of art quite like overstating it. Suffice it to say that I found the quotation supremely unsatisfying.

A week or so later, I listened to a remarkable episode of Hidden Brain.  (You can read a summary of Episode 13 here, although I recommend listening to the whole thing.) It helped me reconcile the contradictory feelings brought about by the Bernstein quotation.

The substance of the episode comes from anthropologist Scott Atran, who believes we err gravely in thinking that moderation is the salve to terror. Brainwashing and religious radicalization, he says, are not the driving forces behind this brutality. He believes that deeper psychological forces are at work. Ones that all human beings share. He quotes Terence, an ancient Roman playwright:

Nothing human is alien to me.

His thinking behind this struck me as both sobering and provocative. At worst, this idea seems resigned and permissive. It allows for the worst from us. Yet it also seems sanguine and empowering. I had to concede that accepting what is allows for an informed response.

When I read about any act of violence, it is difficult not to feel ashamed to be part of the human race. The darker end of our bell curve confuses and distresses me. We all do what we can mentally, intellectually, and emotionally to preserve our own ideals when they’re challenged. To make sense of all this when the unthinkable happens, I reflexively, sometimes subconsciously, engage in thought experiments. What “should” humanity include? What “must” it exclude? There must, I’ve often thought, be some people who lag behind in the self-domestication process.  There’s us, and there’s them. There’s civilized, and there’s barbaric. There’s humane, and there’s inhumane.

But whether I like it or not, human and humane have two very different meanings. If a human being does something, it is de facto human. “Nothing human is alien to me.” It’s annoyingly resonant, isn’t it?

A few weeks ago, Phil and I watched “Grizzly Man,” one of my favorite films. In one of the more heartbreaking moments, Werner Herzog makes an astonishing observation. Timothy Treadwell, the man who chooses to live among the bears for 13 consecutive summers, cannot square the reality of nature with his sentimental world view. The fact that bears can eat their own cubs out of desperation did not fit into his idealized image of them. Nor could his perceived “connection” to them allow for such a fact. This childish and grandiose naïveté led to his death, and that of his girlfriend at the time. (Which, by the way, totally pushes my justice button.)

I see a distinct parallel between Treadwell and the rest of us. In rejecting what doesn’t fit with our ideology, we fail to see reality for what it is. And we suffer the consequences.

As we all know, humanity has too often been compelled to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Atran sees clear parallels between ISIS and Nazi Germany. He believes that brainwashing and religion aren’t responsible for these profound strains on our understanding of humanity. He credits something much more fundamental: the universal human yearning for transcendence. 

Hidden Brain quotes George Orwell on Hitler:

There is something deeply appealing about him… [Hitler] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

Since last summer, I’ve been sloooooowly plugging my way through Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann (who was once a resident of the Villa Aurora, one of our favorite performance spaces). It’s a fiction about “the life of the German composer Adrian Leverkuhn, as told by a friend.” Shortly after I listened to Hidden Brain, I read the following passage — which describes Germany at the beginning of World War I:

War had broken out… it raced through our cities, raging in all the minds and hearts of men as terror, exaltation, and frenzied urgency, as the thrill of fate, the sense of power, the readiness to sacrifice… There is no denying that in our Germany its primary effect was elation and historical exuberance, the rapture of beginning anew and tossing the everyday aside, liberation from a global stagnation that could take us no farther, enthusiasm for the future, an appeal to duty and manliness — in short, a heroic festival.

It occurred to me that Mann, Orwell, and Atran were all saying the same thing. No one thinks they or their group are evil. Rightly or wrongly, the Other earns that title. That fact has nothing to do with cultural relativism — or moral nihilism. It’s human nature. Transcendence, adhering to ideals, belonging to a group beyond the self — these are profoundly, universally seductive.

As a musician, I am no stranger to the pull of the transcendent. I chase it on a daily basis. I’ve made my career out of it. What professional success I enjoy owes everything to audiences chasing it for themselves. I promote it as vital to culture and to enrichment of spirit.

Like many — no, like all — I’ve felt its gravitational pull since I was a child. But expanding our yearning for transcendence to include a road to darkness and brutality was new for me. I had associated it only with aesthetics, the ineffable, and the ennobling. I wondered anew if one of art’s vital functions could be to fulfill our human need for transcendence in ways I hadn’t considered before.

Suddenly, the Bernstein quote seemed less far-reaching. Less grandiose, and more pragmatic.

Venezuela’s El Sistema, and the dramatic global impact it has had, came to mind.  Any high school orchestra nerd can speak to transcendence, being part of a group, and pursuing ideals. “Our reply to violence” started to click for me. It was neither art nor its importance that was feeling different. It was the need for transcendence itself — and above all else, how art relates to it. (That said, I’m hardly advocating for an ISIS Orchestra as a critical instrument of world peace. Just look at the politics and interpersonal trickiness that inevitably arise within any orchestra.)

I started to see a natural connection between anthropology and philanthropy: the study of mankind on the one hand, and the love of mankind on the other. The sanest reply to violence emerged as understanding a human need and providing for it. Uncomfortably touchy-feely and simplistic as the Bernstein quotation seemed at first, I was now surprised by its rationality.

All this was on my mind when LACO performed a “Discover” concert focusing on Bach’s Cantatas. Our incredible conductor (and resident humanist) Jeffrey Kahane outdid himself in his lecture, which preceded a complete performance of “Wachet Auf.”

He began with the fundamental idea that, regardless of one’s own religious views, the music of Bach cannot be separated from his devout Christianity. He pointed out that it can still be spiritually meaningful to everyone, as it is to him — “a Jew who was born Jewish.”

Just prior to Jeff taking the stage, a man addressed the audience on behalf of the venue, which is owned and operated by the Worldwide Church of God, to invite them to worship. The juxtaposition was stark, and a touch uncomfortable. All the same, it was a necessary foundation for Jeff to lay. We then performed a few interesting musical examples to illustrate Jeff’s point. The last one was a musical depiction of Christ’s sacrifice. And that’s when things got interesting.

Jeff made a masterful and organic segue into three stories of real-life sacrifices — replies to violence, really — of the recent past. The first was about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi, who died in a concentration camp. The second was about Salah Farah, a Kenyan Muslim who died just a few days ago, having been shot by terrorists after refusing to be separated from Christians (with whom he was traveling by bus). To conclude, Jeff spoke of Zaevion Dobson, the boy who lost his life shielding three girls during a drive by shooting. Through the audience’s reverent silence, Jeff said that he can no longer hear the Bach aria in question without seeing the face of Zaevion Dobson. And that despite his great respect for psychology and neuroscience, neither will ever be able to explain what compels people to sacrifice themselves for others — just as science will never be able to explain the genius of Bach.

During intermission, it was hard to find the right words with which to thank Jeff. He was admirably bold in his commitment to a universal, humanistic, even musical spirituality. I was excited to play the Bach now that the audience had been primed so meaningfully. I congratulated Jeff, and said something to the effect of: “time for us to worship in our way.” He laughed, and said only: “or whatever.”

As an agnostic, that gets a big fat “amen” from me. But “whatever” the case may be: making music as a reply to violence was feeling more palpable, and making more sense, than ever.