Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the death of God


In my Humanities capstone class, we just finished a unit on music, interweaving key modern classical pieces — Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms — with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. We concluded with Symphony of Psalms yesterday, and though it’s a piece that may not have the overtowering obviousness of the others, I assigned it because Stravinsky is the composer I know best and because Symphony of Psalms is a major piece of his that I don’t know as well as I’d like to.

As I discussed it with my two sections, it became less rather than more comprehensible to me, particularly the lengthy final movement on Psalm 150. The first two movements, which are paired as a kind of prelude and fugue, seem to fit together smoothly and to display a clear relationship between the text and the movement. The Wikipedia page quotes Stravinsky as claiming, “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.” The quote came up in both sections, and I think it’s pretty plausible with the first two movements — he’s trying to get at what Nietzsche might call the Dionysian impulse that motivated the composition of the text we now have.

In the third movement, however, the emotional content seems strangely out of sync with the text of Psalm 150. It is particularly jarring in the lines about the cymbals, where the music is calm and meditative — “the exact opposite of cymbals,” as I told both classes. There are more upbeat passages, and those are the ones that always stood out to me most in previous listening, more or less in isolation from the remainder of the movement, which often faded into the background. Listening intently and placing them in context, however, the more memorable passages can seem almost shrill or desperate, or at least forced. The slower portions, with their slow and steady repetition of “Laudate Dominum, laudate Eum…,” can seem mechanical, almost evacuated of emotion.

Some have viewed this symphony as a testimony of faith on Stravinsky’s part, and I could perhaps see that for the first two movements — but the last seems almost to evacuate the psalm of meaning. It may not be a coincidence here that the texts of the initial pair of movements are both focused on the subjective experience of the worshipper, while the latter seems to evoke a more purely Dionysian absorption in the worship of God.

Perhaps it’s from this perspective that we can begin to understand the strange ending of the first movement, where the choir belts out the final words of the text, “non ero, I will be no more.” The subject is “no more” in the final movement, which consists of a repeated impersonal command to praise God in various ways — a situation that might initially seem to be just the opposite of that predicted in the text of the first movement, where the subject was afraid of being abandoned by God. Yet if we look more closely at the text, there’s a strange decoupling between the course of the human life and recognition by God: whether God answers or not, the speaker still has a limited sojourn on earth and will eventually return to the nothingness from which he came. The final movement, then, can be read as a final enactment of that decoupling, allowing the worship of God to gradually wind down and run out of steam and allowing the subject to live in the abandonment of God.

History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

The birth pangs of apocalyptic

Several years ago, Bruce Rosenstock recommended that I look at 2 Maccabees as a way of contextualizing Paul’s discussion of God’s “adaptive” approach to historical events in Romans 9-11. His general thought was that the Jews had gone “off-script” in actually rebelling against the oppressive rulers, because they could no longer sustain the traditional idea that their political misfortunes were the result of disobedience. It was difficult for me to see what he was getting at initially, as 2 Maccabees at first seems to be little more than a poorly organized and highly editorialized version of 1 Maccabees, but as I’ve digested over the years and especially as I’ve returned to the text for my devil course, I’ve come to believe that the whole problem of political theology and apocalyptic is somehow “all there.”

I recommend homing in on the section on Antiochus Epiphanes’ storied career (5:11-10:9), where the most contradictory elements are simply juxtaposed — most jarringly, graphic accounts of martyrs submitting to torture rather than betray God’s law are placed alongside the emergence of a violent insurgency led by Judas Maccabeus. Both come in for approval, and the editorial voice makes heroic efforts to shoehorn it in to the old Deuteronomistic framework, but that only increases the contradictions. And to top it off, we see the emergence of the apocalyptic theme of the resurrection of the dead, which is only hinted at in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s as though we’re watching the breakdown of the Deuteronomistic paradigm and the first seeds of apocalyptic emerging, all in real time — and it’s all the more striking in that the editor clearly doesn’t understand that that’s what’s happening.

In short: take and read.

What’s the deal with Job’s new daughters?

I spent the morning rereading the Book of Job for the first day of my devil course, and while many enigmatic passages leapt out at me, none was quite as surprising as this segment from the final chapter (emphasis added):

And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

What in the world is this supposed to mean? Are the three daughters meant to be parallel to the three friends in some way? Why is it significant that Job gave them an inheritance? Any ideas?

The 10 commandments of neoliberalism

This is a follow-up to The first job creator.

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Market thy God, which have brought thy GDP above the other nations, out of the bondage of reference to the flourishing of life. Thou shalt have no other gods before maximizing Wealth and individual Creativity.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image which might tarnish thy institution’s brand, or tarnish any brand that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: for I the Market thy God am a jealous God, visiting the bad credit rating of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto the 1% of them that love me, and keep my commandments, and have access to Wealth.

Thou shalt not take the name of Bankers in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that questions financialization of every aspect of life. Read the rest of this entry »

The first job creator

In the beginning, God created the wealth and the jobs. Now the wealth was a formless void and darkness covered the sources of value, while the spirit of capitalism hovered over the depths. And then God said, “Let there be jobs,” and there were jobs. And God saw that the jobs were not very good; and God separated the jobs from the surplus-value. God called the surplus-value Wealth, and the jobs he called Costs. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gender and the Nephilim

Tony Baker writes the following in his ill-considered post on gender:

Let me attempt to bring my gender constructions out of the subflooring of the argument and into the proper living space. The fall narratives, from Eden to Babel to the origin of the Nephilim, are about the disorder than comes of too much taking. In the latter case, the Sons of God find the daughters of men desirable, and “take” them as wives (Gen 6). The “Sons” are pure activity here, and the “daughters” are so passive that the text implies a Sabine-like rape.

There is here, as in my Prometheus reading, an association of boundary transgression and gender. Masculinity is associated with active violating of “kinds,” and the feminine is a pure receiving. The important thing to notice, though, is that this is precisely what invokes God’s displeasure, and becomes the set-up for the flood cycle. Archetypal gender bifurcation (though not gender itself) belongs only to the fallen form, for Christianity, not to our proto- and eschatological versions. If both woman and creation are “feminized” in the narrative while the earthly and heavenly “sons” are masculinized (Cain, Nimrod, David’s “taking” of Bathsheba), this is a split archetype that belongs to our broken form.

I have written frequently in comments that I find it disturbing that he uses what he regards as a rape scene as the paradigm for masculinity and femininity, which supposedly contains a grain of truth that is revealed through the parallels with the consensual passivity of the Virgin Mary (immediately after the passage I quote). That is a core point that I simply cannot let go — if your account of the meaning of masculinity and femininity is derived from a rape scene, something has gone badly wrong, something that requires not “clarification,” but repentance and conversion.

Yet there are a lot more questions to ask about his use of this passage. Read the rest of this entry »

Tarantino the biblical scholar

Last night, we rewatched Pulp Fiction. When listening to Samuel L. Jackson’s fake Bible verse (Ezekiel 25:17), it struck me that it was absolutely perfect to inscribe the phrase “And you will know my name is the LORD” into the gangster context.

One thinks immediately of Marlo’s “My name is my name!” — and wonders if perhaps Omar is the Baal to Marlo’s YHWH.

Learning Hebrew

Let’s say I were to finally sit down and learn biblical Hebrew. What textbook should I use? Would it make any difference if I was hoping I could eventually also make sense of rabbinic Hebrew?

Yahweh Was Not (Primarily) A Divine Warrior

Once in a while I check a reference in a text, and then find myself reading the whole book because I cannot put it down—such has been the case with Anne Moore’s Moving Beyond Symbol and Myth: Understanding the Kingship of God of the Hebrew Bible Through Metaphor. This is a revision of her doctoral dissertation from Clairmont in New Testament, and her effort to correct dated approaches to discerning what the “kingdom of God” metaphor would have meant in Jesus’ day. The major problem with previous studies, according to Moore, is that they ignore the diverse meanings of this metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, making it center solely on eschatology, and making the source of the kingship of God revolve around a common stock Ancient Near Eastern idea of a Divine Warrior. This latter point is what I think is worth sharing. Read the rest of this entry »

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