Sunday, July 6, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Universality?

On the occasion of a conference on the avant-garde in Gent, Belgium this summer, my friend Rainer and I got ourselves into an impassioned debate on whether we can still speak of the old Enlightenment notion of universality in art and literature. Both of us are scholars of the avant-garde (he is albeit one generation more advanced than me), thus we are both perfectly aware of the ideological implication when a westerner evokes the universal value of humanism, which by our time has only to be extremely cautious of its own provincial definition of the human as no more than homo sapiens, with a sovereign individual consciousness and impeccable capacity of reason and to legislate to itself.

At the same time, it is not clear whether humanism can be said to have found an alternative thus far. My own discontent with the conference (see entry) had to do precisely with the fact that the organizers’ eagerness to show its liberal, friendly face to an emerging multi-culti Europe has unwittingly encouraged nationalism in its mediocre, provincial form. Not only that, it seems to have fostered a culture whereby the supposedly culturally neutral, privileged white North Americans find themselves seduced by the exoticism of cultures having suffered isolation under Stalinist totalitarianism. Exoticism in this case has literally to do with the quality of being on the outside: Slovakians, Czechs, Hungarians have become “exotic” not due to being minor cultures at the crossroad of empires but by virtue of having been excluded by “Europe.” In short, my feeling is that the fear for being labeled an imperialist “universalist” has led to an unhealthy sanction for provinciality and, in worse cases, ghetto mentality. The paradox is that it would be humanly impossible for me to recuperate the notion of universality by speaking universally, because (as Hegel teaches) universality has no meaning unless understood in dialectics with particularly. I will thus make the predictable move of telling stories from the world of the particular and idiosyncratic.

In the two years that I have spent in Paris, I have never felt my American identity more strongly affirmed than on Sunday mornings, where I typically found myself in St. Georges Anglican parish in the smug, pristine, bourgeois 16th arrondissement. I identified strongly with the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and felt at home with the genteel, graciousness of the English priests, but after months of singing nothing other than English and German hymnals over and over again on every Sunday, I realized that I was missing the African-American hymnals that many American Episcopalian churches have incorporated into their worship. One Sunday, ennuyée by music that contained no minor chords and always ended in perfect cadences, I started browsing the hymnbook to see what the musical canon of the Anglican church consisted of. To my surprise, I saw the very song that had convinced me years ago for once and for all of the greatness of the African-American musical tradition, namely “Were You There?” which for many American Episcopalians is the standard and indispensable part of Good Friday liturgy.
What is extraordinary is that, even though the smug Anglo-Catholics cannot be expected, for example, to clap their hands and stump their feet to an Afro-Caribbean sanctus, “Were You There?” is nevertheless recognized by the Anglican Communion as an English hymn. “Were You There?” in its impeccable combination of folkloric simplicity and the grandeur of the tragic, has been recognized as not only a song particular to African-American form of worship but is a magnificent contribution to universal Christianity. In other words, the Anglican church (whose particular history, tradition and place in Christianity at large also must be recognized) incorporated
“Were You There?” as a way of valorizing the trans-national, trans-racial relevance and beauty of this poetic and musical masterpiece.

One of the unfortunate consequences of universality and canonization of any work of art or any text is that it permits many of us to become intellectually lazy, as if we have only to accept all things that the great masters told us are great (the culture of the “great books” that my institution, the University of Chicago, is famous for sustaining). We no longer ask ourselves why they are great, we no longer seek empirical proof for ourselves as to why it is this book (and not many, many others) that must be read. It is therefore important for anyone who claims the universality of anything to demonstrate its greatness empirically, which is what I would like to do here.

The foremost virtue of “Were You There?” is its simplicity. The first stanza goes:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh…! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble,

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
The interrogative phrase “Were you there?” is perhaps the simplest way of imploring others to partake in an event that they did not experience firsthand; in short, it is an unpretentious way of revealing one’s identity as a witness. By saying “Were you there?” a triangular configuration is introduced: victim (“my Lord”), witness (the position of the speaker) and a third presence (the listener, the position we occupy as we listen to the poem). It also must be noted that there is no proper name in this entire stanza: no Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, no Romans nor Jews, no name of the disciple, not even the name of Jesus himself. I suspect that it is one of the secrets as to why, amidst numberless great African-American hymns (including the passionate, emancipating “Go Down Moses”), it is this one that has become the testimony of suffering, not of one group, one individual, one race, but of every human being. It does not matter, then, where the atrocity took place; what matters is whether the song can convince “you” of the terror of what “they” did to “him,” there. As a historian of modern art, I never fail to see the image of Picasso’s wailing woman with a dead child in her hand (a modern Pietà) when I hear this hymn.

The second virtue of the song is its magnificent expressivity that miraculously avoids any sentimentality or mannerism. This is accomplished musically and not discursively, thereby avoiding the danger of the rhetorical. (It is not as if the listener needed to be persuaded, as in the situation of a politician giving a speech to an audience. The listener must be made to share the pain, not to be convinced of any particular ideology.) It should also be mentioned that the entire tune is in a major key (I think that it is even best performed in the grand, open and nearly naïve C Major), a key that in the Anglo-Germanic musical tradition would have signified neutrality, at times even gaiety and lightness. (I would be interested to know if ethno-musicologists have come up with explanations as to why happy music in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern tradition is often in minor keys whereas sorrowful tunes in the African tradition can often be carried in major keys. Did not Walter Benjamin say once (to children of Berlin) that Gypsy music, even when happy, sounds sad?) The neutrality of the major key, I believe, here works magically to suppress any sign of emotional manipulation. The song thereby becomes the very opposite of, say, Spanish flamenco or Portuguese fado where the lamentative has been perfected to such a degree via a plethora of musical tricks (modulations between parallel major and minor keys, from E Major to e minor, for example). The first three note – So-Do-Mi – of the verse forms a major triad (third inversion), emphasizing once again the simplicity and plainness, a form of modesty and pudeur.

Since the major key has reined in the expressive domain and structurally prevented the rhetorical, the singer is now free to be as expressive as she or he wants; there will be no risk for falling into sentimentality. The proper way to sing this song (I believe to have witnessed excellent performances on Good Fridays throughout the years) is to begin the first verse in a soft, plaintive but timid tone, with a crescendo toward the end of the phrase, followed by a refrain of the same verse, this time in a louder (ff), sterner, emphatic manner. Needless to say, while the first verse is discursive (literally asking the question “were you there?”), the second verse has a non-discursive quality that might suggest that the narrator knows perfectly well that the listener was not there, did not experience the event. Depending on the singer’s choice, the second verse can be made to express sorrow, grief, even reproach.
Then comes the long exclamation, “Oh!...” where a singer trained in the Gospel tradition would want to demonstrate her virtuosity. This can be made to resemble a grief-stricken sigh, a painful wailing, a cry of protest, all depending on the singer’s choice. The exclamation goes to its peak and descends once again, caught, as it were, by the word “sometimes,” signifying the return to the discursive (to reason, to testimony, to narrative). “Sometimes” here breaks up the temporal continuity of the narrative, for it is no longer clear how long ago the event in question took place. “Sometimes” is also an alternative to the more assertive “always” or “all the time,” suggesting that the narrator’s discourse is a subaltern one, which only “sometimes” gets heard.

Now the peculiarity of the use “causes” instead of “makes” in the verse “Sometimes it causes me to tremble” might be explained by the fact that lyrics was written in Elizabethan English (I cannot confirm this at the moment). But “causes” in our language today has a particular ring of impersonality, as if “I” was “caused” to tremble much like the wind makes the leaves of the tree tremble. Once again, what would have been a sentimental expression of grief is now turned “tectonic,” as it were, by its proximity to natural phenomena. It goes without saying, then, that the singer’s triple “tremble…tremble…tremble” would be then sung in such a way as to perform the rhythmic oscillation that we envision in objects trembling. The stanza then finishes off with the refrain – this time merely to mark a sorrowful but graceful resignation (one might imagine the St. Peter’s Pietà transformed into song), “Were you there…when they crucified my Lord?” There is a musical round-ness and internal closure (as if the mourning were complete).

The following stanzas is each a classical iconography from the Passion, from the Crucifixion to the Deposition. Its simplicity can only be described as hieratic, and each one can be imagined as a discretely cloisonné scene on the predella of a medieval altarpiece.

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree…

Were you there when they pierced him in the side…

Were you there when the sun refused to shine…

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb…

I will end my analysis here, but I think that it is clear that “Were You There?” both represents and transcends African-American form of Christianity. It embodies universal qualities that can be applied not only to all art traditions but all artistic media: expressive without being expressivist, lyrical without being affected, pathétique without being sentimental. Its qualitative equivalent in the Christian artistic tradition would be Quattrocento painting, which combines the hieratism of Byzantium and the Internationl Gothic with the humanism of early Renaissance.

My final word – coming back to the question of universality – is that the universal, like the particular, is a quality that we can ascribe to a work of art by means of our experience of it. That is to say, it is not an intrinsic attribute to the object (the way “white” is an attribute to “dove”), rather, it is an experience as fugitive and contingent as all human experiences, such as freedom, happiness, and so forth. It makes little sense to say that Marlene Dietrich is “universal,” but it makes perfect sense to say that the song “Lily Marleen” in the years of the Second World War, insofar as it addresses the homesickness of soldiers fighting far away from home and mustering up their spirits by conjuring images of their beloved, became an universal phenomenon so much that a French and English version of the song had to be written, and (the final evidence of its unforeseen universality) the Nazis, realizing that a song that was written to boost the morale of the Wehrmacht had started to make not just German but French and English soldiers weep, put a ban on the song. The invisible figure of “Lily Marleen” the German popular re-incarnation of “Lou,” whose photograph Guillaume Apollinaire wanted to show to fellow combatants in the trenches of the First World War, to make sure that they remember that beauty exists in the same world as barbed wire fence and gas attacks.

I myself remember my surprise when, upon meeting my friend Paroma Chatterjee for the first time, I learned that the poet Tagore was a Bengali national hero. For me and my childhood friends in Taiwan, Tagore was nearly our poet, as his poems in mandarin Chinese translation were a very refreshing alternative to the 300 poems of the Tang dynasty that we were required to memorize, and, in many ways, much closer to the egocentric pomposity of adolescent idealism than those hermetic texts that speak of nothing other than flowers falling at night and moonlight upon one’s bedstead. Tagore, as the first poet from the Asian/Oriental part of the world to win the Nobel prize in literature, was a universal poet for us insofar as reading his work represented the possibility of reading literature outside of the canon of merely Chinese nationalist literature sanctioned by the schoolmasters. We read Tang poetry in class, but we read Tagore on lunch breaks, sometimes hiding it under the table… At the same time, it is in listening to Paroma tell me how beautiful Tagore’s poems are when recited and sung in Bengali that I began to be fascinated by Bengalis and Bengali culture. Tagore led me to the particularity of Bengali culture precisely because he had been a universal phenomenon that was able to touch Taiwanese adolescents growing up under the KMT regime.

The experience of universality, in short, is not only valuable but instrumental to the dignity of human beings who wish to step out of the particularities of their own language, ethnicity, race, gender, and wish to see the world from another’s point of view. The fear for universality will destroy particularity because it makes particularity utterly meaningless. Only by recognizing who we are in our particularity can we figure out what it is that we can bring to the table of universality; inversely, only by recognizing that the world is much greater and much more heterogeneous than the Anschauung carved out by our particular language, ethnicity, race and gender can we develop the capacity to try to enter into the particularity of another culture, be it German, French, Taiwanese, African-American or Bengali.

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