Coming on the heels of a thoughtful foray into Aristotle’s Ethics and in the dog days (er, attack, that is) of the Canadian federal election campaign, George Jonas’ reflections on a life fully lived provide even more food for thought as to what makes the world tick and, too often, explode. Tellingly, of the three sources of information listed, it is only the democratic “discussion” and call to action on January 23 that lacks any meaningful mention of the arts.
Having grown up in a household where music—especially opera, Jonas’ father sang for a time with the Viennese State Opera—was the norm rather than the exception, the author’s recollections and illustrations are laden with artistic references and opinions. The anecdote of Turkish diva Fatime’s rock-hard diaphragm is a hoot, his notions on the dumbing down of art to appeal to an illiterate populous (“What this does is diminish the enjoyment of poetry or opera for those who like poetry or opera, in order to enhance the enjoyment of those who have no taste for poetry or opera in the first place.”) is a tad self-serving. His argument that elitists cannot compete with populists and that “common people went bowling or gawked at freak shows,” ignores and belittles the power of fine art to appeal to any human being whether schooled in the intricacies of a five-voice fugue or the role of the chord of the augmented sixth in Schubert’s symphonies. Access, more than education, is the key.
Jonas asserts point blank that there were no successors to Beethoven and Tolstoy. True. Direct succession is rare in the masters, but comparable genius is not dependent on its admirers, only in the environment (anywhere on the planet) that is conducive to the germination of expression.
Artists again come into play in “The Jewish Question” section. Here, Jonas speaks of primary creators (novelists, poets, composers or painters) and secondary art forms (cinema, musical stage, daily journalism) and states that Jews are—proportionately—underrepresented in the former and over-represented in the latter as well as in the “doers” of art: editors, publishers, directors, instrumentalists, conductors, patrons or critics. The lists are curious for what they include (daily journalism as an art form?), but more so for what is left out: architects, choreographers, actors. But all of that aside, the real questions (which makes the book such a compelling read—no one will agree with everything: a discourse igniter extraordinaire) remain: Does it matter what proportion of any race, tribe, nationality or sex is engaged in any occupation? Does/can the world be proportionately ordered by vocation? Is Beethoven’s “successor” composing assiduously but unheard in China? Is great art the exclusive domain of the West? (Parts of it may well be: only Western music embraces the miracle of counterpoint.)
Beyond art, Jonas spends much of his time discussing organizing principles (dynastic, tribal-historical, cultural-linguistic, ideological-religious, geographic and economic—perhaps others), often used, solely or in combination to bind people(s) of countries and commonwealths together. Similarly, Aristotle extols first principles as the benchmark to measure human activity and the necessary ingredients to achieve “supreme good” and warns of both excess and deficiency in interacting with other humans.
Jonas maintains that when organizing principles “decay” (e.g., Russia’s failed attempt to hold the Soviet Union together with Communism and a large dose of “coercive force”) countries change (borders, systems) and the lives of citizens are altered (improved, worsened, ended). Page after page documents the results of such ideological shifts from the rise and fall of Nazism, to the Cold War (and Canada’s “inciting” incident, the defection of Igor Gouzenko) to the establishment of the European Union and the State of Israel. Fascinating and as thoughtful as the insights are, a nagging feeling emerges even in the cacophony of the English language leaders’ debates of Canada’s future.
Given the near-universal greedy excess of the desire by leaders (political, religious and commercial) for power, wealth and honour—at any cost, are not their “organizing principles” merely the control-mechanism-du-jour used to enslave the masses in the name of systemic change, escaping purgatory, or 0% interest? Seeing Canada’s “elite” squirm under judicial inquiries and an unrelenting media, recant past beliefs to garner support only to govern with selective memory illustrates the utter lack of first principles in those who purport to improve the organizing principles so that Canada will be better for all (or at least, the “all” we like). Decay most certainly brings about the transformations Jonas describes, but the rot is in the leadership and their selective use of the organizing principles they vowed to uphold and defend on their rise to power. Applied consistently and fairly, most principles can stand the test of time.
Those still reading are invited to slip Beethoven’s Mask onto their must read list and see for themselves.
The human side of the author also permeates the pages. Much is made of family, friends, health and hobbies. Jonas as pilot and particularly motorcycle enthusiast, resonates as surely as Burt Munro in The World’s Fastest Indian (cross-reference below). Here’s to a 15th tome from the gifted and intriguing author—a goal worthy of Beethoven’s 10th, driven as he was to write his next masterpiece after finishing the current take on the state of humanity only to realize there was still much more to say. JWR