On An Overgrown Path: Think on these things

With those words of the Buddha from the Kalama Sutta and a photo from my travels on the the Manali to Leh highway in Jammu and Kashmir I leave you to spin again on the wheel of life. Take care but also take risks.

via On An Overgrown Path: Think on these things.

This read like a farewell blog post, and so far there hasn’t been another from On an Overgrown Path.

Although quoting that particular passage of the Buddha’s teachings seems a good way to close a blog, I hope it’s not the last we hear from its author. Overgrown Path is consistently one of the blogs I read that feels substantial. The ideas are provocative, and the intersection of western and eastern and middle-eastern values and traditions and art forms offers a fresh look at what art and life can be. There’s a kind of myopic focus that exists in any field, whether classical music or otherwise, and I appreciate On and Overgrown Path for breaking free of the nonsense and looking for real meaning, both via the questions it asks and the answers it suggests.

Nevertheless, if that is the final post, then I wish its author the best.

UPDATE: He’s still blogging. All is well.

Spotify Ambivalence

SpotifyScreenshot

As of writing this, I’m a musician, but I don’t sell recordings in any way whatsoever. That may change at some point in the future.

I recently restarted my Spotify premium membership after an absence of 4 months. I’d been just using iTunes in that time and not feeling too deprived since I’d purchased a slew of new music and had plenty to listen to.

But with Don Giovanni happening, I decided that I wanted more varieties of interpretation than my single recording purchase could give me, and I don’t have the money to buy six or seven other recordings in iTunes. Spotify excels at this kind of problem, and within minutes, I could listen to all sorts of DG recordings. Sweet.

I am ambivalent about Spotify and other streaming services though. I wish I could just enjoy it 100%, because as a music listener, it’s amazing. For ~$10 per month, I can just sit back and listen. But like factory farming, driving automobiles, and buying dirt cheap clothing from overseas there are moral questions lingering in the background that spoil the experience for me (though the relevant moral questions have different weights in each of these cases). Yes, you can turn your mind off and just get on with life without feeling bad, and I do in many cases. I am no longer a vegan. Here I am listening to Elvis on Spotify. I don’t drive, but that’s just circumstance.

What’s interesting about the Spotify and streaming issue though, is that it threatens the very product itself. If you eat a lot of steak and drive an overpowered vehicle, you aren’t driving cows or car companies to extinction. Quite the opposite. But streaming – as a business model – is pretty lousy for the musicians themselves who put out the records. Streaming fees are awful compared to iTunes or CD purchases, and you have to wonder whether recording musicians will continue to put out quality records if the likelihood of earning their investment back dwindles to impossible.

Now, this isn’t a sure thing. This is a possibility. The arts are full of people who sacrifice so much to deliver their work. Maybe musicians will just choose to operate at a loss. Or maybe quality will just go down, and we listeners won’t care. Maybe the cost of recording will plummet. It’s also possible that streaming rates will go up once it becomes truly mainstream. Or maybe laws will change. It’s possible that the whole payments system will change.

But right now streaming makes a rough business rougher.

But can we unbake the bread and put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Should we? There are real benefits of streaming above and beyond the ease of access. The most valuable is the ability to share with other people. I rarely see it described as such, but Spotify is a social network. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a playlist that a Reddit user shared. Click, jump to Spotify, hit play and away I go. To recreate this in iTunes would be incredibly expensive and time consuming. Further, I could create playlists and share them with you and vice versa. There are Spotify channels that curate songs and place them into easy access playlists. Friends on Spotify can send tracks to each other just for fun.

Let me reiterate: This is amazing.

Further: this is legal. The artists involved are getting paid per stream. They just aren’t getting paid very much per stream. I wish they were, and if you care about their livlihoods and the future of recorded music, then you probably should as well.

I won’t prescribe any possible solutions. But something will have to give. I just don’t see recording musicians sitting by forever and allowing the one thing that can possibly scale about their business become nothing more than an advertisement, especially when it’s clear that people still hunger for recorded music.

But similarly, streaming is too good for consumers. I doubt that it’s going away, and I don’t want it to. It works for me as a listener.

I just want it to work for the musicians too.

Jean Valjean: The Pacifist Superhero

Head’s up: if you’re not at all familiar with Les Misérables, then spoilers are about to follow. Even though the book is from the 19th century, I’m assuming that most people haven’t read it (it’s quite long), though I will assume if you’re reading this blog that you’re aware of the musical and its plot. Some things from the novel, however, aren’t in the musical, and I will mention some of them. I’ve put a spoiler tag before the scene not included in the musical or film.

Like many others, I’m sure, I came to Les Misérables first through the stage musical. Having just finished the novel, I was surprised by what modern adaptations have changed.

What surprises me the most is the extent to which the Jean Valjean of the novel is a true pacifist. If you’re familiar with the musical or the most recent non-musical movie, you might remember that Jean Valjean was occasionally violent. Most clearly, he strikes Javert to escape him after the death of Fantine. In the film – with Liam Neeson as Valjean – he actually smashes Javert’s head into the wall before going outside and striking another policeman. In the musical – if I’m remembering correctly – he throws him aside before fleeing.

But this doesn’t happen in the novel. He chooses a pacifist route instead during that scene and during every scene. Why is this an important difference?

Yes, Valjean is a kind of superhero. He’s a non-violent one, but he is remarkably similar to modern superheroes in many elements. His superpowers? Strength.[1]. Agility[2]. He’s an excellent climber[3], and he’s a crack marksman[4]. He has a kind of superhero origin story with the bishop[5], and thereafter he has his secret identity while assuming several different names. No one knows the extent of his secret until the very end of the book. He’s filthy rich (once he’s the mayor). He has an arch villain in Javert[6] and a secondary villain in Thenardier[7]. He spends the entire book saving other people[8] in adventures that are often as exciting as any other hero, though sometimes it’s the little acts that are the most moving.[9]

However, to make Valjean violent does a disservice to the character. I understand the need for expediency in adaptations, but a change like that changes the nature of the character. Valjean would have viewed an attack on Javert as a betrayal of the bishop. He doesn’t only save “good people” as a modern comic book hero might do. He doesn’t punish the villains. They are all people and therefore worthy of compassion, even if they’re wrong. Imagine if Batman swooped in and gave money and aid to the criminals, realizing that they’ve been led astray. No violence. He will defend himself without hurting anyone. No turning them over to the police. Here’s some money. Some new clothes. Maybe a lecture. That’s closer to Jean Valjean.

Valjean’s struggle to do right includes his unwillingness to be violent, even when his life is threatened. Often this is shockingly brave.

(MAJOR SPOILER FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T READ THE NOVEL) To me, the single most surprising scene in the novel is when he’s trapped by the Thenardiers – who are under the name Jondrette – who have plotted to extort money out of him. If he refuses, then they plan to kill him and perhaps torture him. The leader (Thenardier) has his henchmen, and there are just enough of them to subdue the otherwise indomitable Valjean and tie him up. When Valjean gains the upper hand and arms himself with a heated chisel, he demonstrates his self control (and how!), disarms himself and turns the other cheek, saying:

“You are wretches, but my life is not worth the trouble of defending it. When you think that you can make me speak, that you can make me write what I do not choose to write, that you can make me say what I do not choose to say—”

He stripped up his left sleeve, and added:— “See here.”

At the same moment he extended his arm, and laid the glowing chisel which he held in his left hand by its wooden handle on his bare flesh.

The crackling of the burning flesh became audible, and the odor peculiar to chambers of torture filled the hovel.

Marius reeled in utter horror, the very ruffians shuddered, hardly a muscle of the old man’s face contracted, and while the red-hot iron sank into the smoking wound, impassive and almost august, he fixed on Thenardier his beautiful glance, in which there was no hatred, and where suffering vanished in serene majesty.

With grand and lofty natures, the revolts of the flesh and the senses when subjected to physical suffering cause the soul to spring forth, and make it appear on the brow, just as rebellions among the soldiery force the captain to show himself.

“Wretches!” said he, “have no more fear of me than I have for you!”

And, tearing the chisel from the wound, he hurled it through the window, which had been left open; the horrible, glowing tool disappeared into the night, whirling as it flew, and fell far away on the snow.

The prisoner resumed:—

“Do what you please with me.” He was disarmed.

Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 538–539). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

(END OF SPOILER)

There are many instances in the novel of Jean Valjean choosing the pacifist path. The most famous is, naturally, his release of Javert at the barricade, but the novel abounds with many others. I admire this character because of his pacifism, rather than despite it.

I will end with this more general thought: we should treasure our pacifist heroes, and in adaptations, we should resist efforts to make them more modern by making them more violent. In our films now, heroes are shown demonstrating 101 ways to kill an orc or beat up a henchman or alien or whatever. Violence drips from our fiction and is celebrated even as violence in reality is condemned. How do we solve our problems? If we judged entirely by our modern action films, it’s through violence.

But Valjean shows us another path. His pacifism is not an act of weakness but rather that of supreme strength.

Amazing Citations Below


  1. One detail, which we must not omit, is that he possessed a physical strength which was not approached by a single one of the denizens of the galleys. At work, at paying out a cable or winding up a capstan, Jean Valjean was worth four men.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 77). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  2. When a shot laid Marius low, Jean Valjean leaped forward with the agility of a tiger, fell upon him as on his prey, and bore him off.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 824). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  3. To climb a vertical surface, and to find points of support where hardly a projection was visible, was play to Jean Valjean. An angle of the wall being given, with the tension of his back and legs, with his elbows and his heels fitted into the unevenness of the stone, he raised himself as if by magic to the third story. He sometimes mounted thus even to the roof of the galley prison.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 77). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  4. Without saying a word, he took aim at the fireman, and, a second later, the helmet, smashed by a bullet, rattled noisily into the street. The terrified soldier made haste to disappear. A second observer took his place. This one was an officer. Jean Valjean, who had re-loaded his gun, took aim at the newcomer and sent the officer’s casque to join the soldier’s.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 793). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  5. Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:— “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 86–87). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  6. One single man in the town, in the arrondissement, absolutely escaped this contagion, and, whatever Father Madeleine did, remained his opponent as though a sort of incorruptible and imperturbable instinct kept him on the alert and uneasy. It seems, in fact, as though there existed in certain men a veritable bestial instinct, though pure and upright, like all instincts, which creates antipathies and sympathies, which fatally separates one nature from another nature, which does not hesitate, which feels no disquiet, which does not hold its peace, and which never belies itself, clear in its obscurity, infallible, imperious, intractable, stubborn to all counsels of the intelligence and to all the dissolvents of reason, and which, in whatever manner destinies are arranged, secretly warns the man-dog of the presence of the man-cat, and the man-fox of the presence of the man-lion…His name was Javert, and he belonged to the police.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 126–127). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  7. Since geniuses, like demons, recognize the presence of a superior God by certain signs, Thenardier comprehended that he had to deal with a very strong person.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 289). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  8. Cosette, he went to the barricade to save me. As it is a necessity with him to be an angel, he saved others also; he saved Javert. He rescued me from that gulf to give me to you. He carried me on his back through that frightful sewer.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 949). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  9. “My child, what you are carrying is very heavy for you.”  ↩

    Cosette raised her head and replied:—

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Give it to me,” said the man; “I will carry it for you.”

    Cosette let go of the bucket-handle. The man walked along beside her.

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 273). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

A Doozy of a Les Misérables Passage

I’ve shifted some of my reading to my so-called “miracle morning”, and this morning I ran headlong into this doozy in “Les Misérables”:

Let us have compassion on the chastised. Alas! Who are we ourselves? Who am I who now address you? Who are you who are listening to me? And are you very sure that we have done nothing before we were born? The earth is not devoid of resemblance to a jail. Who knows whether man is not a recaptured offender against divine justice? Look closely at life. It is so made, that everywhere we feel the sense of punishment.

Are you what is called a happy man? Well! you are sad every day. Each day has its own great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for a health that is dear to you, to-day you fear for your own; to-morrow it will be anxiety about money, the day after to-morrow the diatribe of a slanderer, the day after that, the misfortune of some friend; then the prevailing weather, then something that has been broken or lost, then a pleasure with which your conscience and your vertebral column reproach you; again, the course of public affairs. This without reckoning in the pains of the heart. And so it goes on. One cloud is dispelled, another forms. There is hardly one day out of a hundred which is wholly joyous and sunny. And you belong to that small class who are happy! As for the rest of mankind, stagnating night rests upon them.

Thoughtful minds make but little use of the phrase: the fortunate and the unfortunate. In this world, evidently the vestibule of another, there are no fortunate.

-Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 651–652). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

One of my great surprises reading this book is that Hugo’s personal religion and morality are so hard to pin down. Every time I think I have a sense of it, it turns in a new direction.

But one thing is clear: compassion. The book is filled with compassionate moments leading to great changes in character’s lives. Any number of them, if erased, would fundamentally alter a character and shift the story. It’s so counter to what most modern stories praise, that to see it – especially embodied in the character of Jean Valjean – is occasionally breath-taking. A passage I recently read that is not mentioned in the musical or in the Liam Neeson movie actually took my breath away due to the incredible power of Valjean’s self-control and desire for self-determination and salvation through compassion.

In fact, I think my wife is right that this could serve as the or one of the thesis statements for the book. She said that after I read her the passage this morning.

We’re all in this together, whatever it is, so let’s be decent.