Gustav Mahler, Genesis, and the “Judaic Aesthetic”

Sept. 20 2016

For years, Barton Swaim was baffled by the high esteem in which so many critics and musicians held the, to him, “muddled and perverse” symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Having at last found himself enjoying a performance of the composer’s Ninth Symphony, Swaim reflects on what he sees as a biblical theme in the work:

Perhaps Mahler was attempting to do something akin to what the writer of Genesis attempted in narrating the life of Joseph. It is a sprawling story that takes in greatness of character and inextinguishable human love, but also mischance, pettiness, hatred, stupidity, deceit, self-absorption, greed, and of course death. The story is an intensely beautiful one, including though it does many unsavory details one might have assumed a myth-making historian would leave unrecorded. It is the story (to put it briefly) of how one vicious and cowardly act of human trafficking turns out to be, in the sublime superintendence of God’s quiet governance, the very thing that keeps a tribe of families from destruction. “You meant evil against me,” says Joseph at the story’s end, “but God meant it for good.”

So much of a Mahler symphony is jarring and confusing and unhappy, but somehow he stitches its themes together in ways that always seem natural—his transitions never sound forced—and the whole, once you’re able to take it in, forms a thing of great humaneness and power.

I wonder the degree to which Mahler [a Jew converted to Christianity] had internalized this Judaic aesthetic, if that’s not an unduly literary way to put it. Many of the Hebrew Bible’s histories read this way: an untidy series of mistakes and betrayals and partial gains leads in time to fulfillment and rest. We know that as a child Gustav was an “excellent” student in Judaic studies, and many scholars have pointed out the Jewish influences apparent in his works, especially the Second Symphony, “Resurrection.” The analogy of his music to the life of Joseph is probably a fanciful one, but it is not preposterous.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Genesis, Gustav Mahler, Joseph, Music

How to Prevent Saudi Arabia from Getting Nuclear Weapons

Skeptics of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran warned that it could prompt a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As they predicted, Saudi Arabia has been seeking assistance from the U.S. in obtaining civilian nuclear capabilities, while also speaking—in imitation of the Islamic Republic—of a “right” to enrich uranium, something it pledged not to do in a 2008 agreement with Washington. Were Riyadh to begin such enrichment, it could also produce the fuel necessary for nuclear weapons. Emily Landau and Shimon Stein warn of the dangers inherent in Saudi proliferation, and discuss how the U.S. and Israel should respond:

So long as the motivation to go nuclear remains strong, states are likely to find a way to develop [nuclear] capabilities, even if they have to pay a price for doing so. In Iran’s case, the major motivation for going nuclear is to enhance its hegemonic power in the Middle East. . . . But in the case of Saudi Arabia, if strong international powers . . . were to take a harsher stance toward Iran’s regional aggressions and missile developments and were to cooperate in order to improve the provisions of the [2015 nuclear deal], this would most likely have a direct and favorable impact on Saudi Arabia’s calculations about whether to develop nuclear capabilities.

A decision by the U.S. administration (or for that matter any other supplier) to allow Saudi Arabia to have enrichment capabilities will confront Israel with a dilemma.

On the one hand, it has been Israeli policy to do its utmost to deny any neighboring country with whom it does not have a peace treaty the means to acquire and develop a nuclear program. If Israel remains loyal to this approach, it should seek to deny Saudi Arabia enrichment capabilities. In practical terms this would imply making its opposition known in Washington.

On the other hand, given the “tactical alliance” with Saudi Arabia which has been primarily developed in response to the common Iranian threat, Israel could consider sacrificing its long-term interest in denying nuclear capabilities for the sake of its current interest in cultivating relations with the Saudis. Israel, [however], should support the traditional U.S. nonproliferation policies that allow states to have access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes, while denying them the option to produce it themselves.

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More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Nuclear proliferation, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia