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Monday, January 30, 2023

Natural Law reading group, Week Ten, 'The Semantics of 'Good' & 'Evil'

Bob Banner, who published and edited Critique when RAW's essay appeared there. (Facebook photo).

This essay, dense with ideas, contains much of Robert Anton Wilson's philosophy. When I read one passage, I thought about how a famous episode in classical music history illustrates some of Wilson's points,  so I'll focus on that.

On page 176, Wilson writes, "If I classify something as 'Good' or 'Evil' in the metaphysical sense, defined by some priesthood or Party Line, I do not 'take responsibility,' I become virtually a ventriloquist's dummy, through which the priests or ideologists speak or act, and I abdicate all possibility of learning more or revising my mistakes ... Humans do not generally behave like robots unless they have been indoctrinated with some metaphysical system like Christianity or its close relatives, Judaism or Islam, or its late heresies, Naziism or Communism."

I have a music blog devoted to Russian classical music, and so I have a hobby, not usually related closely to this blog, of reading up on 20th century Russian composers, including well known ones such as Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.

In 1936,  the young Shostakovich had a hit opera, The Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District. It had relatively noisy, modernist music and was more sexually explicit than operas tend to be, but that didn't prevent Russian audiences from loving it and quite likely feeling pride in supporting a cutting-edge Soviet composer. 

Alas, an influential cultural critic named Joseph Stalin, whose taste in operas was more conservative, attended a performance, and a vicious denunciation appeared in the newspaper Pravda, which called the opera "muddle instead of music" and said that Shostakovich's artistic approach "may end very badly," an ominous statement in the 1930s Soviet Union. Suddenly, the opera official went from "Good" to "Bad." The production was soon banned, and Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (my favorite of his 15, by the way) also was banned and was not performed for many years.

Pauline Fairclough's enjoyable Shostakovich biography, part of the "Critical Lives" series, records the robotic behavior of Soviet musicians attempting to follow the Party Line: "Overnight Shostakovich was transformed from the Soviet Union's most feted composer to someone whose name could hardly be mentioned without reference to his crimes against the art of music ... The entire Leningrad Composers' Union voted in favor of the Pravda editorial, with just one exception: The composer Vladimir Shchervachev, who abstained."

Pravda, by the way, means "truth," a telling example of the confidence of the Soviet Union's Communist Party to decide what was "Good" for everyone in that country. Another prominent Soviet newspaper was Izvestia, which means "the news." Hence the bitter Soviet joke that "There is no Pravda in Izvestia, nor any Izvestia in Pravda." 

Shostakovich, who had also written an oddball opera called The Nose, never wrote another opera. Prokofiev, apparently less attuned to Soviet reality, spent much of his career writing operas, many of which were not staged. 

A couple of footnotes:

Laurance Labadie (1898-1975) was well-known to anarchists and libertarians; the Wikipedia bio notes that Labadie was a contributor to "A Way Out," which RAW edited. 

I Googled Critique: A Journal of Conspiracies and Metaphysics, where this essay appeared. I could not find an article describing it, but apparently it was put out for many years and may still exist in some form. When RAW contributed to it, it was owned and edited by Bob Banner (not the late TV producer of the same name). The Critique Bob Banner is on Facebook


Oz Fritz said...

Wilson ends this piece "... by the method of Confucius: respecting one's own nose." Tom mentions an obscure opera by Shostakovitch called The Nose. I wondered if I could find a connection and discovered through google that Shosty had composed a series of choral ballads comparing Lenin to Buddha, Allah and Confucius. While I couldn't a direct connection with Confucius' method, I did find a scene of tap-dancing noses (gnosis?) from the opera that appeared very respectful; put on by no less than The Royal Opera.

This essay continues the theme of relying more upon one's own sense impressions and measurable data than abstract ethical ideas.

Spookah said...

There is also the Gogol story called The Nose, in which a nose one day leaves its owner and goes on to have adventures of its own.

Tom Jackson, I feel that, by giving the example of the Soviet Union's practices, you are underlining the use of 'Good versus Evil' for purposes of domination. What Wilson summarizes as the attitudes of "don't think; we'll do the thinking for you" and "you will go to Hell if you doubt me". (p. 174-5)
Of course, Wilson and Leary favored the "think for yourself, you schmuck" approach.

Although it focuses on Good and Evil, this essay seems to me another iteration of favorising a Maybe Logic rather than a binary vision of the world. As such, I have to admit that it felt overly long to me, as RAW takes many pages to hammer his point down, while elsewhere he did so more succintly and effectively, at least in my opinion.

I wonder why on page 172 he puts "horror movies" in the "bad for me" category. RAW was always pretty open about his love for, for example, Boris Karloff flicks.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

"The Nose" is in fact based on the Gogol story, as Spookay suggests, although I liked the synchronicity that Oz discovered.

The "horror stories" bit surprised me, too.