Damn You to Hell, Eric Alterman!

Eric AltermanIt must be that Eric Alterman doesn’t get much mail.

Certainly, he is kind of an old-fashioned guy. He doesn’t allow comments on this “blog.” And he doesn’t post all the time. I hate Fridays because it is the beginning of the weekend, and there are lots of reasons to hate the weekend. But there are three reasons to be excited about Fridays: Paul Krugman‘s second column of the week, FAIR’s CounterSpin, and Eric Alterman. On Fridays, on his The Nation blog, he provides links to what he’s written during the week in addition to an article by the always interesting Reed Richardson.

On 27 January of this year, he posted an article called The Winter of Our Discontent. Ah, anyone quoting Richard III is a friend of mine. In the article, he mentions going to see a number of plays and concerts and generally makes me feel bad that my life sucks so badly. But he opens the article with two things that brought a smile to my face:

If you’ve been reading “Altercation” for a long time, then you may have heard my argument that I prefer Shaw to Shakespeare (and not that it’s relevant, Mozart to Beethoven).

Okay. Yes, Shaw is generally a lot better than Shakespeare and it is nice to see others admit to this. But I was especially happy to hear him say that he prefers Mozart to Beethoven. In general, in the classical world, Beethoven is thought to be better. And there is no doubt he is great, but I tend to think he appeals more to the young. Certainly I loved him when I was a teenager. But now, that whole century of Romantic music more annoys than anything else. Again, however: I still enjoy Beethoven, especially compared to the likes of Schumann and Wagner.

More than this, however, much of people’s appreciation for Mozart comes down to this argument that I’ve heard ad nauseum, “It’s too bad Mozart died so young, otherwise he might have developed into… [wait for it] Beethoven!” This is ridiculous. Yes, it is tragic that Mozart died so young (but it would have been a good deal more tragic had he died at 30, given the amazing things he created during that last five years). But had he lived longer, he would have developed into… older Mozart. His artistic trajectory was not to Beethoven. Mozart didn’t have Beethoven’s peevish musical temperament.

Then, on 2 February, Alterman printed a letter:

Ben Willis


Dear Alterman,

Over the years I have had my issues with some of your opinions (most notably Ralph Nader, and your unwavering support for the Democratic party), but now I understand why you write the things you do. Mozart over Beethoven?!?!?!? Are you serious? Mozart was a lyrical genius. Every musical idea he wrote was melody and no doubt his appeal is universal, yet his compositions never reached the transcendence of those by Ludwig van Beethoven. I challenge you to compare any of Mozart’s works for string quartets or chamber ensembles with Beethoven’s late quartets. Ops. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135 and the glorious Grosse Fuge revolutionized music and can be heard not only as romantic works but as precursors to the modern age where the sound of the notes/chords themselves are as important as to how those musical ideas fit within the hierarchy of the key or the rigidity of phrase forms that mark Mozart’s oeuvre. There is also the slight issue of the position of Beethoven’s symphonies within the pantheon of great repertoire of the “classical” music. Not even Mozart’s “Jupiter” can compare with any one of LVB’s more well known symphonies such as; the “Eroica” (3rd), the iconic 5th, the Pastoral (6th), the Tanze (7th), and the glorious Ninth. (Not to mention the underrated 8th and the almost unknown Missa Solemnis which is considered Beethoven’s Tenth). Ok, Mozart has his operas and Beethoven only has one. Mozart has his twenty-something piano concerts. But Beethoven’s five are outstanding and the sonatas for Hammerklavier are light years ahead of anything Mozart wrote for the soloist.
 I thank you for the review of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Some of my friends, including Claudia, were there playing that night. I also know Scott Ligon of NRBQ from way back in his Peoria days. I’m glad you’re covering these events. But please save the missive about Mozart over Beethoven for some other forum.

Eric replies:

Dear Ben,

I’m sorry. I should have pointed out that I’m a complete philistine when it comes to such things. I’m sure you’re right (and I’m not being sarcastic) but to be fair to me, I mentioned only as way of mentioning the Shaw/Shakespeare thing.

What? To begin with, I love how Ben just throws Mozart’s most important work (his operas) aside, “Yeah. He wrote a few operas.”[1] And there’s the whole thing of claiming that Alterman said that Mozart was better than Beethoven when he only said he preferred him. But that’s not the main thing. I couldn’t believe that Alterman would betray our cause for so little cause. So I popped off an email to the scoundrel. Either Eric Alterman doesn’t get much mail, or he has a soft spot for petulant little music snobs (Ben and me): he printed my letter:

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa


I can’t believe you are backtracking on Mozart just because Ben Willis of Queens blinded you with an obscure intellectual-sounding argument that said nothing. Music isn’t about argument, it is about pleasure. And in the end, arguments are just intellectual exercises to justify what one feels. My regard for Mozart grows every year. Although I admire Beethoven, I cannot say the same for him. When I read your parenthetical aside, I was gleeful. You are *not* a philistine. Ben is a prat!

Eric replies:

Thanks Frank. I’m not sure I “backtracked.” I just admitted that my preference need not carry much weight in the world of classical music. I still prefer Mozart, but I never argued he was in any way “better.” Someone could prefer, say, Peter Frampton to Bruce Springsteen, and I would think that’s ok. Taste is taste. But if they argued that he was “better”—as I heard so frequently in the years 1976 and 1977, well, them’s were fightin’ words.

This is coming off last week’s column about a 20 minute conversation he had with The Boss. He is so deft at sticking the knife in and twisting it simultaneously. I am, as it turns out, well aware that his life is infinitely better than mine.

Damn you to hell, Eric Alterman!

[1] Fun fact: “opera” is the plural of “opus.” But the plural of “opera” (the ones we are talking about) is “operas.” This could be confusing. A composer’s first ten compositions are opera one through ten. Would ten such composers’ opera be the operas one through ten? I suppose not, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

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On Crying at the Movies

The Cats of MirikitaniThis last week, I got a text from Andrea, “I just watched The Cats of Mirikitani and it made ME cry.” Since you don’t know my relationship with Andrea, you probably think this text represents some kind of information about her life or about a film recommendation. It isn’t. It is more along the lines of a dare.

You see, I am a crier. I cry during most films and much else in life and art. It doesn’t take a great artist to get me to laugh, but it takes no artist at all to get me to cry. Andrea, on the other hand, prides herself on her steely exterior strengthened with a withering sarcasm that has been known to bring real men (e.i. not me) to tears. If Andrea cried during a film, she suggests, I may go catatonic for a week.

But is that really true? Isn’t it the case that there are only certain things that can make it through her armor? I know things that will make her cry. So I was not sure she was right.

As I got ready to watch the film, I became more convinced that this film was not going to be the sob-fest that Andrea had indicated. Old homeless artists and concentration camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II: I’d seen it all before. I started watching the film. And I didn’t even make it to the credits, which are less than two minutes into the film, without crying.

The Cats of Mirikitani

The film tells the story of 81 year old Jimmy Mirikitani, a homeless artist who earned his dignified living selling drawings on the street in New York City. After the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, he was left alone on the street inside a cloud of toxic debris. The filmmaker, Linda Hattendorf, took him in and tried to get him some help. This turned out to be harder than you would think, because Mirikitani didn’t want any help from a United States government that he thought of as evil for what it did to him and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese-Americans.[1] Slowly, Mirikitani relented and his life got better.[2]

The first half of this film is very sad, in that “cry your eyes out” way so beloved by people of my ilk. The second half of the film, however, is very uplifting, but in that “cry you eyes out” way so beloved by people of my ilk.It speak to the resilience of the human soul (in that “cry your eyes out” way). And the story is inspiring even after it stops. Mirikitani seems to be doing very well to this day. According to the official website of the film:

Jimmy Mirikitani celebrated his 91st birthday in June 2011. He is feeling good and making art. He still lives in New York, and looks forward to attending the next pilgrimage to Tule Lake in July 2012.

I’d say more, but I think I’m going to cry.


The library has the Samurai Trilogy boxed set. I should have it next week. I may not be able to see the San Francisco Opera’s production of Don Giovanni, but life still has its pleasures.

[1] I find it interesting that many people don’t like labels like “Japanese-American” or “Afro-American.” But when a country uses their heritage against people, are we really just supposed to pretend that such distinctions don’t exist and aren’t used in negative ways? Are we to pretend, like Stephen Colbert’s character, that we just don’t see color?

[2] One sign of this is that Mirikitani got to rent Samurai I, the first part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Triology starring the great Toshirô Mifune.

The Cave of Salamanca

Ocho ComediasYesterday, I picked up a book from the library (in the closed stacks), A Treasury of the Theatre. The reason was that it included one of Cervantes’s plays, and I have been keen to read his theatrical work because it was not considered good at the time and is generally discounted today. Melveena McKendrick notes that his genius is for character and not drama, so his plays don’t tend to work well.

In 1615, he published Ocho Cemedias, a collection of eight short comedic plays that, like most of his theatrical work, had not been performed. Some of these plays sound like too much fun. For example, The Divorce-Court Judge presents a married couple who seem happy to be constantly bickering. It sounds funny, right? But I know what you’re thinking, “Most of Shakespeare’s comedy lies flat on the page, Cervantes’ must do the same.” But whether it is because Cervantes is just funnier than Shakespeare or because the work has been translated in the 20th century, this is not true. According to the Glasgow University Library:

Cervantes could create character and write sparkling dialogue, but he was unable to sustain dramatic tension for any length cf time, nor could he develop a plot logically. But in these short satirical sketches where character and witty dialogue are more important than plot he succeeds brilliantly.

Take The Cave of Salamanca for example (translated by Edwin Honig). It starts:

[Enter Pancracio, Leonarda and Cristina]

pancracio: Mistress, dry those tears and stop your sighing. Remember, I’ll be away four days, not centuries. On the fifth day, at the latest, I’ll be back, God preserve me. But if it upsets you so, just say the word and I’ll break my promise and give up the trip altogether. Surely my sister can get married there without me.

leonarda: Pancracio, dear lord and master, I don’t want you to be discourteous because of me. Go now, God speed you, and meet your obligation, since the matter is so pressing. My grief I’ll keep to myself and spend the lonely hours as best I can. Only, I beg you to come back and not stay any longer than you promised. Oh, help me, Cristina, I’ve a pain in my heart!

[Leonarda faints]

cristina: Ah, weddings and holidays—such dreadful things! Indeed, sir, if I were you, I’d never go there.

pancracio: Run inside, girl, and get me a glass of water to throw in her face. No, wait, I know a few magic words I’ll whisper in her ear: they can revive people who faint.

[He speaks the words and Leonarda recovers, saying]

leonarda: Enough. It can’t be helped. I must be patient. My dear, the more you linger, the longer you delay my happiness. You friend Leoniso should be waiting for you in the carriage. God be with you and bring you back as quickly and safely as I could wish.

pancracio: If you want me to stay, my angel, I’ll be like a statue and not budge an inch.

leonarda: No, no, sweet comfort. Your wish is my desire, which means you must leave and not stay here, for your honor and mine are one and the same.

cristina: Oh, mirror of matrimony! If all wives cherished their husbands as my mistress loves hers, they’d sing a different tune.

leonarda: Go get my shawl, Cristiana. I must see your master safely off in his carriage.

pancracio: No, I beg you. Kiss me, but stay here, please. Cristina, be sure and cheer up your mistress, and I’ll get you a pair of shoes when I return.

cristina: On your way, sir, and don’t you worry about my mistress. I’ll see to it we both enjoy ourselves so she won’t miss your absence.

leonarda: Enjoy myself? Me? What a fantastic idea! Without my love beside me, I can know no bliss or joy, only grief and sorrow.

pancracio: I cannot bear this any longer. Ah, light of my eyes, farewell; I’ll see nothing to delight me will I gave upon you once again.

[Exit Pancracio]

leonarda: Good-bye, and good riddance to you! Go, and don’t come back! Vanish, go up like smoke in thin air! Good God, this time all your bluster and squeamishness don’t move me a bit!

cristina: And I was afraid your sweet nothings would keep him here and spoil our fun.

leonarda: Do you think our guest will really come tonight?

cristina: And why not? I’ve been in touch with them, and they’re just dying to come.

And so it goes. A student shows up looking for a place to stay for the night. He helps out as a servant when the two gentlemen callers arrive. Then the carriage that the husband was in breaks down and he returns home. Quickly, the lovers and student are hidden. The student is discovered, but he claims to be able to do magic and calls forward demons in the form of the two lovers. And they all enjoy the previously planned feast, with the husband none the wiser.

The whole thing probably runs about 15 minutes, and it is delightful from beginning to end. The characters are certainly as well-drawn as any in Shakespeare or Marlowe. But the most important thing is that the play is funny. In performance, I can imagine it being a riot.