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


Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela