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Susan Sontag on Moral Courage and the Power of Principled Resistance to Injustice

“Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.”

The recent anniversary of Rosa Parks’s arrest, which sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, reminded me of “On Courage and Resistance” — the timeless Oscar Romero Award keynote address Susan Sontag delivered on March 30, 2003, originally published in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library). In honoring the Israeli soldiers who defied orders and refused to serve in the occupied territories, Sontag examines the osmosis between individual acts and collective fate, the interplay between morality and courage, and the role of fear in violence:

Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.

The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are — and always will be. How things really are — and always will be — is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.

The cry of the antiprincipled: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ The best given the circumstances, of course.

In discussing the relationship between morality and courage, Sontag speaks to the kind of “moral imagination” so essential for happiness:

At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve.

[…]

Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of ‘moral courage’ — because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.

She zooms in on the Israel-Palestine conflict and its reverberations around the world:

A wounded and fearful country, Israel, is going through the greatest crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its victory in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The decision of successive Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe — moral, human, and political — for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous Israeli Jewish witnesses, journalists, architects, poets, novelists, professors — among others — who have described and documented and protested and militated against the sufferings of the Palestinians living under the increasingly cruel terms of Israeli military subjugation and settler annexation.

Long before the “peer progressive” movement, Sontag makes an infinitely important point about the incrementally cumulative value of individual acts of resistance:

The Israeli soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied Territories are not refusing a particular order. They are refusing to enter the space where illegitimate orders are bound to be given… What the refuseniks have done — there are now more than one thousand of them, more than 250 of whom have gone to prison — does not contribute to tell us how the Israelis and Palestinians can make peace beyond the irrevocable demand that the settlements be disbanded. The actions of this heroic minority cannot contribute to the much-needed reform and democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Their stand will not lessen the grip of religious bigotry and racism in Israeli society or reduce the dissemination of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in the aggrieved Arab world. It will not stop the suicide bombers.

It simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul.

It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there will always be penalties.

Sontag then issues a critique all the more apt today, nearly a decade of wars later:

Our ‘United We Stand’ or ‘Winner Takes All’ ethos: the United States is a country that has made patriotism equivalent to consensus.

On the flawed logic of going to — and staying at — war:

The force of arms has its own logic. If you commit an aggression and others resist, it is easy to convince the home front that the fighting must continue. Once the troops are there, they must be supported. It becomes irrelevant to question why the troops are there in the first place.

Sontag zooms back out into the bigger picture:

Let’s not underestimate the force of what we are opposing.

The world is, for almost everyone, that over which we have virtually no control. Common sense and the sense of self-protectiveness tell us to accommodate to what we cannot change.

It’s not hard to see how some of us might be persuaded of the justice, the necessity of a war. Especially of a war that is formulated as small, limited military actions that will actually contribute to peace or improve security; of an aggression that announces itself as a campaign of disarmament — admittedly, disarmament of the enemy; and, regrettably, requiring the application of overpowering force. An invasion that calls itself, officially, a liberation.

Every violence in war has been justified as a retaliation. We are threatened. We are defending ourselves. The others, they want to kill us. We must stop them.

[…]

Never mind the disparity of forces, of wealth, of firepower — or simply of population. How many Americans know that the population of Iraq is 24 million, half of whom are children? (The population of the United States, as you will remember, is 290 million.) Not to support those who are coming under fire from the enemy seems like treason.

She illustrates the case for personal responsibility — something Joan Didion pointed to as the pillar of character — with an example of how seemingly ineffectual individual acts of resistance can spark massively influential chain reactions of effects:

Thoreau’s going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment (famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it led directly to the formation of a movement of protesters in faraway Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.

The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.

Thus: it is not in the best interests of Israel to be an oppressor.

Thus: it is not in the best interests of the United States to be a hyperpower, capable of imposing its will on any country in the world, as it chooses.

Sontag concludes with a necessary reminder that, just like the light and heat of the distant sun are responsible for the flame in your fireplace, our local, individual actions and inextricably connected to and fractionally instrumental in our global, collective fate:

Beyond these struggles, which are worthy of our passionate adherence, it is important to remember that in programs of political resistance the relation of cause and effect is convoluted and often indirect. All struggle, all resistance is — must be — concrete. And all struggle has a global resonance.

If not here, then there. If not now, then soon. Elsewhere as well as here.

At the Same Time is a remarkable anthology in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement with Sontag’s insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

BP

How To Sing: A 1902 Illustrated Guide from the Great German Opera Singer Lilli Lehmann

“It is the artist’s task, through offering his best and most carefully prepared achievements, to educate the public, to ennoble it.”

Just like learning to listen to music is an acquired skill, learning to make music may have as much to do with discipline and practice as it does with inborn “talent,” if not more. In How To Sing (public library | public domain), originally published in 1902, German opera superstar Lilli Lehmann sets out “to discuss simply, intelligibly, yet from a scientific point of view, the sensations known to us in singing” by exploring “the expressions ‘singing open,’ ‘covered,’ ‘dark,’ ‘nasal,’ ‘in the head,’ or ‘in the neck,’ ‘forward’ or ‘back.'” But more than a mere technical guide to vocal skill, Lehmann’s treatise is really a guide to thinking musically and a dimensional meditation on the general art of learning. Equally enchanting are the anatomical diagrams — an inadvertent recurring theme around here lately — illustrating her theories.

Lehmann begins with an articulate assertion about the osmosis of nature and nurture:

The true art of song has always been possessed and will always be possessed by such individuals as are dowered by nature with all that is needful for it — that is, healthy vocal organs, uninjured by vicious habits of speech; a good ear, a talent for singing, intelligence, industry, and energy.

She expresses a concern, eloquently echoed a century later by Sir Ken Robinson, about the industrialization of education:

But art to-day must be pursued like everything else, by steam. Artists are turned out in factories, that is, in so-called conservatories, or by teachers who give lessons ten or twelve hours a day. In two years they receive a certificate of competence, or at least the diploma of the factory. The latter, especially, I consider a crime, that the state should prohibit. All the inflexibility and unskillfulness, mistakes and deficiencies, which were formerly disclosed during a long course of study, do not appear now, under the factory system, until the student’s public career has begun. There can be no question of correcting them, for there is no time, no teacher, no critic; and the executant has learned nothing, absolutely nothing, whereby he could undertake to distinguish or correct them.

She stresses the responsibilities of students and teachers:

One is never done with learning. … Learning and teaching to hear is the first task of both pupil and teacher. One is impossible without the other. It is the most difficult as well as the most grateful task, and it is the only way to reach perfection.

Lehmann goes on to delineate a number of technical and strikingly specific recommendations for singing, such as:

The singer’s endeavors, consequently, must be directed to keeping the breath as long as possible sounding and vibrating not only forward but back in the mouth, since the resonance of the tone is spread upon and above the entire palate, extends from the front teeth to the wall of the throat. He must concern himself with preparing for the vibrations, pliantly and with mobility, a powerful, elastic, almost floating envelope, which must be filled entirely, with the help of a continuous vocal mixture, — a mixture of which the components are indistinguishable.

She gives specific instructions regarding tone:

To attack a tone, the breath must be directed to a focal point on the palate, which lies under the critical point for each different tone; this must be done with a certain decisiveness. There must, however, be no pressure on this place; for the overtones must be able to soar above, and sound with, the tone. The palate has to furnish, besides, the top cover against which the breath strikes, also an extremely elastic floor for the breath sounding above it against the hard palate or in the nose.

This breath, by forming the overtones, makes certain the connection with the resonance of the head cavities.

In order to bring out the color of the tone the whirling currents must vivify all the vowel sounds that enter into it, and draw them into their circles with an ever-increasing, soaring tide of sound.

The duration of the tone must be assured by the gentle but uninterrupted outpouring of the breath behind it. Its strength must be gained by the breath pressure and the focal point on the palate, by the complete utilization of the palatal resonance; without, however, injuring the resonance of the head cavities. (See plate, representing the attack.)

[…]

The head tone signifies, for all voices, from the deepest bass to the highest soprano, — excepting for the fact that it furnishes the overtones for each single tone of the whole vocal gamut, — youth. A voice without vibrancy is an old voice. The magic of youth, freshness, is given by the overtones that sound with every tone.

She gets as specific as the position of the tongue:

The tongue must generally form a furrow. With the lowest tones it lies relatively flattest, the tip always against and beneath the front teeth, so that it can rise in the middle.

As soon as the furrow is formed, the mass of the tongue is put out of the way, since it stands high on both sides. It is almost impossible to make drawings of this; it can best be seen in the mirror. As soon as the larynx is low enough and the tongue set elastically against the palate and drawn up behind (see plate a), the furrow is formed of itself. In pronouncing the vowel ah (which must always be mixed with ?? and o), it is a good idea to think of yawning.

The furrow must be formed in order to allow the breath to resonate against the palate beneath the nose, especially in the middle range; that is, what a bass and a baritone (whose highest range is not now under consideration) would call their high range, all other voices their middle.

Without the furrow in the tongue, no tone is perfect in its resonance, none can make full use of it. The only exception is the very highest head and falsetto tones, which are without any palatal resonance and have their place solely in the head cavities. Strong and yet delicate, it must be able to fit any letter of the alphabet; that is, help form its sound. It must be of the greatest sensitiveness in adapting itself to every tonal vibration, it must assist every change of tone and letter as quick as a flash and with unerring accuracy; without changing its position too soon or remaining too long in it, in the highest range it must be able almost to speak out in the air.

She then moves on to the lips:

Of special importance for the tone and the word are the movements of the lips, which are so widely different in the bright and in the dark vowels. These movements cannot be too much exaggerated in practicing. The same strength and elasticity to which we have to train the muscles of the throat and tongue must be imparted to the lips, which must be as of iron. Upon their coöperation much of the life of the tone depends, and it can be used in many shadings, as soon as one is able to exert their power consciously and under the control of the will.

Every vowel, every word, every tone, can be colored as by magic in all sorts of ways by the well-controlled play of the lips; can, as it were, be imbued with life, as the lips open or close more or less in different positions. The lips are the final cup-shaped resonators through which the tone has to pass. They can retard it or let it escape, can color it bright or dark, and exert a ceaseless and ever varying influence upon it long before it ceases and up to its very end.

No attempt should be made to use the play of the lips until complete mastery of the absolutely even, perfect tone, and of the muscular powers, has been acquired. The effect must be produced as a result of power and practice; and should not be practiced as an effect per se.

In a section on preparing for singing, Lehmann outlines the three functions that need to be performed simultaneously in order to perform:

First, to draw breath quietly, not too deeply; to force the breath against the chest and hold it there firmly till the upward and outward streaming — that is, singing — begins.

Second, to raise the soft palate at the same time toward the nose, so that the breath remains stationary until the singing begins.

Third, to jerk the tongue backward at the same time, its back being thus raised, and elastic, ready to meet all the wishes of the singer, — that is, the needs of the larynx. The larynx must not be pressed either too low or too high, but must work freely. The breath is enabled to stream forth from it like a column, whose form is moulded above the larynx by the base of the tongue.

When these three functions have been performed, all is ready. Now the pitch of the tone is to be considered, as the singing begins.

She echoes William James’s famous words on habit in discussing vocal routines:

The degree of the evil, and the patient’s skill, naturally have much to do with the rapidity of the cure. But one cannot throw off a habit of years’ standing like an old garment; and every new garment, too, is uncomfortable at first. One cannot expect an immediate cure, either of himself or of others. If the singer undertakes it with courage and energy, he learns to use his voice with conscious understanding, as should have been done in the beginning.

And he must make up his mind to it, that even after a good cure, the old habits will reappear, like corns in wet weather, whenever he is not in good form physically. That should not lead to discouragement; persistence will bring success.

Lehmann writes beautifully of the texture of language and the art of listening:

It is very interesting to note how much a word can gain or lose in fulness and beauty of tone. Without the use of auxiliary vowels no connection of the resonance in words can be effected; there is then no beautiful tone in singing, only a kind of hacking. Since it must be quite imperceptible, the use of auxiliary vowels must be very artistically managed, and is best practiced in the beginning very slowly on single tones and words, then proceeding with great care to two tones, two syllables, and so on. In this way the pupil learns to hear. But he must learn to hear very slowly and for a long time, until there is no failure of vibration in the tone and word, and it is all so impressed upon his memory that it can never be lost. The auxiliary vowels must always be present, but the listener should be able to hear, from the assistance of the oo, only the warmth and nobility of the tone, from the a and e only the carrying power and brilliancy of it.

She then offers a number of practical exercises:

The practical study of singing is best begun with single sustained tones, and with preparation on the sound of ah alone, mingled with o and oo. A position as if one were about to yawn helps the tongue to lie in the right place.

In order not to weary young voices too much, it is best to begin in the middle range, going upward first, by semitones, and then, starting again with the same tone, going downward. All other exercises begin in the lower range and go upward.

The pupil must first be able to make a single tone good, and judge it correctly, before he should be allowed to proceed to a second. Later, single syllables or words can be used as exercises for this.

The position of the mouth and tongue must be watched in the mirror. The vowel ah must be mingled with o and oo, and care must be taken that the breath is forced strongly against the chest, and felt attacking here and on the palate at the same time. Begin piano, make a long crescendo, and gradually return and end on a well-controlled piano. My feeling at the attack is as shown in the plate.

At the same instant that I force the breath against the chest, I place the tone under its highest point on the palate, and let the overtones soar above the palate — the two united in one thought. Only in the lowest range can the overtones, and in the highest range the undertones (resonance of the head cavities and of the palate), be dispensed with.

Lehmann goes on to extol The Great Scale, noting:

This is the most necessary exercise for all kinds of voices. It was taught to my mother; she taught it to all her pupils and to us. But I am probably the only one of them all who practices it faithfully! I do not trust the others. As a pupil one must practice it twice a day, as a professional singer at least once.

[…]

The scale must be practiced without too strenuous exertion, but not without power, gradually extending over the entire compass of the voice; and that is, if it is to be perfect, over a compass of two octaves. These two octaves will have been covered, when, advancing the starting-point by semitones, the scale has been carried up through an entire octave. So much every voice can finally accomplish, even if the high notes must be very feeble.

The great scale, properly elaborated in practice, accomplishes wonders: it equalizes the voice, makes it flexible and noble, gives strength to all weak places, operates to repair all faults and breaks that exist, and controls the voice to the very heart. Nothing escapes it.

It becomes inescapably evident that for Lehmann, art and discipline are inextricable:

In practicing the singer should always stand, if possible, before a large mirror, in order to be able to watch himself closely. He should stand upright, quietly but not stiffly, and avoid everything that looks like restlessness. The hands should hang quietly, or rest lightly on something, without taking part in the interpretation of the expression. The first thing needed is to bring the body under control, that is, to remain quiet, so that later, in singing, the singer can do everything intentionally.

The pupil must always stand in such a way that the teacher can watch his face, as well as his whole body. Continual movements of the fingers, hands, or feet are not permissible.

The body must serve the singer’s purposes freely and must acquire no bad habits. The singer’s self-possession is reflected in a feeling of satisfaction on the part of the listener. The quieter the singer or artist, the more significant is every expression he gives; the fewer motions he makes, the more importance they have. So he can scarcely be quiet enough. Only there must be a certain accent of expression in this quietude, which cannot be represented by indifference. The quietude of the artist is a reassurance for the public, for it can come only from the certainty of power and the full command of his task through study and preparation and perfect knowledge of the work to be presented. An artist whose art is based on power cannot appear other than self-possessed and certain of himself. An evident uneasiness is always inartistic, and hence does not belong where art is to be embodied. All dependence upon tricks of habit creates nervousness and lack of flexibility.

And yet, she admonishes against disciplinary extremism:

Agents and managers commit a crime when they demand enormous exertions of such young singers. The rehearsals, which are held in abominably bad air, the late hours, the irregular life that is occasioned by rehearsals, the strain of standing around for five or six hours in a theatre, — all this is not for untrained young persons. No woman of less than twenty-four years should sing soubrette parts, none of less than twenty-eight years second parts, and none of less than thirty-five years dramatic parts; that is early enough. By that time proper preparation can be made, and in voice and person something can be offered worth while. And our fraternity must realize this sooner or later. In that way, too, they will learn more and be able to do more, and fewer sins will be committed against the art of song by the incompetent.

In considering the line between transformation and authorship, Lehmann offers:

A word is an idea; and not only the idea, but how that idea in color and connection is related to the whole, must be expressed. Therein is the fearsome magic that Wagner has exercised upon me and upon all others, that draws us to him and lets none escape its spell. That is why the elaboration of Wagner’s creations seems so much worth while to the artist. Every elaboration of a work of art demands the sacrifice of some part of the artist’s ego, for he must mingle the feelings set before him for portrayal with his own in his interpretation, and thus, so to speak, lay bare his very self. But since we must impersonate human beings, we may not spare ourselves, but throw ourselves into our task with the devotion of all our powers.

Ultimately, Lehmann honors the role of the artist as an educator of the public and a celebrator of the work rather than an absorber of the spotlight — an ethos the singer shares with the curator — and shares a heartening sentiment akin to E. B. White’s wisdom on the responsibility of the writer. She writes:

To me it is a matter of indifference whether the public goes frantic or listens quietly and reflectively, for I give out only what I have undertaken to. If I have put my individuality, my powers, my love for the work, into a rôle or a song that is applauded by the public, I decline all thanks for it to myself personally, and consider the applause as belonging to the master whose work I am interpreting. If I have succeeded in making him intelligible to the public, the reward therefor is contained in that fact itself, and I ask for nothing more.

[…]

It is the artist’s task, through offering his best and most carefully prepared achievements, to educate the public, to ennoble it; and he should carry out his mission without being influenced by bad standards of taste.

The public, on the other hand, should consider art, not as a matter of fashion, or as an opportunity to display its clothes, but should feel it as a true and profound enjoyment, and do everything to second the artist’s efforts.

How To Sing is now in the public domain and is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.

BP

Does the Universe Have a Purpose? Neil deGrasse Tyson, Animated

“In the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random.”

“Why does the world exist?,” asked one of the best philosophy books of the year. Another way to put is, “Does the universe have a purpose?” That’s exactly what the John Templeton Foundation asked a dozen of our time’s greatest scientific minds in a new series of Big Questions. The wonderful MinutePhysics — who have previously given us a stride-stopping open letter on the state of science education and animated explanations of why the color pink doesn’t exist, why the past is different from the future, and why it’s dark at night — have animated Neil deGrasee Tyson’s characteristically brilliant answer to the question, which once again reaffirms him as the Carl Sagan of our day:

To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring? And what would a desired outcome be? That carbon-based life is inevitable? Or that sentient primates are life’s neurological pinnacle? Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment? Of course humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.

Indeed, what an eloquent attestation to the power of not knowing.

It’s Okay To Be Smart

BP

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