‘Banned by the land of their birth / Rhine refused them’

To the happy memory of 800 African refugees, exiles by the Schengen laws, drowned between midnight and morning of April 19th, 2015.

The Wreck of the Deutschland


I
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt—
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—
But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat;
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet—
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,
To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet—
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.

Be adored among men,
God, three-numberéd form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

With an anvil-ding
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still:
Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,
Make mercy in all of us, out of us all
Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.

II

"Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood" goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dréam we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
American-outward-bound,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvass and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.
O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

Five! the finding and sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the Life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

The majesty! what did she mean?
Breathe, arch and original Breath.
Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
Breathe, body of lovely Death.
They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
Or ís it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?

For how to the heart’s cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

No, but it was not these.
The jading and jar of the cart,
Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

But how shall I … make me room there:
Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:
He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;
Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;
Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.

Ah! there was a heart right
There was single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—
The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast
Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

Jesu, heart’s light,
Jesu, maid’s son,
What was the feast followed the night
Thou hadst glory of this nun?—
Feast of the one woman without stain.
For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;
But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

Well, she has thee for the pain, for the
Patience; but pity of the rest of them!
Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the
Comfortless unconfessed of them—
No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

I admire thee, master of the tides,
Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;
The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,
The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;
Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

With a mercy that outrides
The all of water, an ark
For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark
Our passion-plungèd giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.

Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturèd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

The Simple Art of Murder

Discussed in this essay:
  • Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream/David Cage 2010)

I need to lampshade something at the beginning. Here at Democritus the Third, we review every video game, consciously or un, by comparing it to Deus Ex, the cyberpunk RPG shooter-or-nonshooter from the year 2000. There are some rational and some irrational reasons for this, and going back through the archives of our internal communications, it appears I’ve been as guilty of the irrational ones as anyone. The worst of these moments was an invocation of it in describing Skyrim, which made an initially very positive impression but turned out to be junk by the end: a fair comparison might have been “omg, it’s juuust like Deus Ex if JC Denton hadn’t been able to hack it in his first UNATCO assignment and had been laid off and had to get a job as a driver for FedEx. And then got assigned a delivery route on a bullshit medieval fantasy island.” That’s the irrational talking, the part of me that thinks that Warren Spector is the only RPG developer to have seen the face of god. In the realm of the rational, Deus Ex figures heavily in my discussion of Heavy Rain because they both have similar ambitions in terms of giving the player agency to shape the story, are both generally successful in these ambitions, but have very different approaches to and definitions of things like agency and choice. They are also games which while ultimately very good exhibit a number of shocking, jarring flaws – sometimes even the same ones – such that I think it’s pretty constructive to consider them side-by-side a lot of the time. I’ve also embarked on a playthrough of Deus Ex for the first time in about four years which ran parallel to my playing Heavy Rain, so both have been swirling around in my mind for a while.

For all their similarities, Deus Ex and Heavy Rain come from different sides of the fundamental divide in video games, best expressed in ultimate archetypes: there are Pongs, and there are Froggers. Froggers, a category that includes Frogger but also things like Super Hexagon, or even hide and seek, are deterministic systems through which the player moves using play and game elements, but which only reach their end states through player success. Failure is an option: you can fall in the water, get run over, etc., but this doesn’t produce an outcome. It halts the system, which is then run again and again until the end is reached without the interruption of failure. Pongs are the category that includes games in the larger sense that spans all of human history: Pong is one, but so are chess, soccer, and Candyland. These games all move toward a definite end state (eleven points; checkmate; 90 minutes; hyperglycemia) which produces an outcome, and one of the outcomes for any given player is failure. Deus Ex is a Frogger, but Heavy Rain is a Pong.

Player agency in Heavy Rain works like this: no matter what you do in any given scene, the game continues on to the next one. Completion of or failure to complete the game sequences in the scene will have consequences – sometimes fatal ones – for whichever of the four player characters is the focus of the scene. If you get someone killed, the game continues toward its end state without them or any of the subsequent scenes they would have appeared in. Failure also might not have any immediate consequences, but it might get someone else killed further down the line. There is also ‘failure’ in the sense of refusing to even attempt something that has been laid at your feet: you can get up and walk away, and the game goes on anyway. The implications of this are tremendous, and I need to revisit them when I talk about controls a bit further on. Contrast that with Deus Ex: as many paths as there might be through one warehouse, and as little killing as many of them may involve, there is only one path through the game and the only way to walk it is without JC Denton getting killed. Here, it’s almost (but not quite) the reverse: Heavy Rain doesn’t grant you this decisional sovereignty all the time or in every scene, and some outcomes are scripted to the point where you can push buttons frantically or just put down the controller to cover your innocent stuffed hippo’s eyes from the violence unfolding in front of you and the outcome will be the same. It also micromanages the environment to an absolutely infuriating degree: you can only interact with objects when they have the controller-button halo over them, and not at all when they don’t. This is applied with stunning condescension: searching a room for clues, I can open a closet door because the halo has appeared over the knobs, but once I’ve opened it and my character has seen that it’s empty, the halo disappears and I can’t open it again. In perhaps the most maddening example, the game permitted me, walking down the hallway in a nursing home, to stop and look at some flowers. Since this wasn’t my first video game, I knew I would need them later, but I wasn’t permitted to pick them up until I had walked all the way down the hall, run through a bunch of conversation options with the dialogue holding my hand, and then only after the visit from Captain Obvious was I allowed to walk all the way back down the hall, pick them up, and bring them all the way back – which, by the way, I had to do, Frogger-style, if the scene was going to advance. For a game that lets you choose, ultimately, whether all of the people with speaking parts live or die and which is brave enough to painstakingly construct whole scenes and chapters that never see the light of day because every choice excludes some later alternatives, this kind of railroading is supremely annoying. But it’s hard to say which is more condescending: not being able to pick up the flowers until my cue or permitting me to think that some difference will be made by having a body count of 0 versus 1200 when really I’ve been on a monorail to Area 51 since I landed on Liberty Island and the only choice with any significant consequences for posterity is the one between doors number one, two, or three at the very very end. (It was in many ways more intellectually honest for the end of Deus Ex: Human Resources to be just a big ol’ gleaming console with a red button and a blue button on it.)

Heavy Rain has one of the strongest, most vivid, tightest – both in the sense of coherent and of constricting – atmospheres of any game I’ve ever played. Just as Deus Ex evokes the dystopian cyberpunk horror of Neuromancer and the nighttime, somehow both shadowy and alive with electric possibility, of The Man Who Was Thursday, so Heavy Rain is what would happen if Michael Haneke and Raymond Chandler decided to make a movie together. It has the bitter bleakness, the intensity of suffering, and the chamber-orchestra scale of Funny Games, but the moral grounding, the noir tropes, and the noble punching-bag protagonist of The Long Goodbye. It is not a world-building game – it won’t even name the city it’s in, though connoisseurs will recognize Philadelphia – and the plot is dramatic, not epic. Even as it involves the police, poverty, income inequality, and social exclusion, it is not a Brechtian vehicle for the discussion of these things; they serve to shape and display the emotions and fates of the characters rather than the other way around. And the rain – good god, the rain. It is both plot and atmospheric element, the relentless background to everything, the fundament of the whole story. It is a small wonder that Heavy Rain manages such intensity without ever tipping over into monotony.1 Similarly, the music is instrumental (as opposed to synthesized), vivid, and school-of-John-Adams, gripping the player’s emotions in a very American way by urgently flinging about the same broad, high major harmonies found all over the works of people like Adams and Copland, the kind that have always made me Feel Something even as they blocked my mind’s eye’s field of vision with the same silvery glint given off by quarters. You will have the urge, after playing this game for hours, to towel off your rain-soaked head and warm up with a cup of tea. It works utterly.

This has the effect of making the game’s glaring flaws and oversights all the more maddening. Let’s start with an old saw from the Deus Ex days: where do they find these voice actors? Deus Ex was made on a too-quick timetable and a too-small budget by people in Texas who might, under the most generous possible construal of things, be forgiven for not being able to locate a Cantonese voice actress in Austin at short notice. But I watched the credits for Heavy Rain, which was a multimillion-dollar production with the full backing of Sony, who paid for the game to be dubbed completely into at least four languages, and they nevertheless expect me to believe that French actors doing transparently awful American accents are the best they can do? Let me give you some advice, Quantic Dream and or Sony Computer Entertainment Incorporated: If you are going to develop a triple-A video game whose showpiece villain is called the “Origami Killer”, it may be wise to point your voice actors in the direction of the correct pronunciation of these words, because your hard-boiled Philadelphia police detective becomes a ridiculous figure every time he shouts about finding “origammy” at the crime scene. Have you people ever actually been to America? Come to think of it, I don’t think they have. Emergency exit and fire-safety signs conform to European, not US, standards in the richly detailed environments; a scene in a hospital prominently shows British electrical outlets (go figure), and every light switch without exception from start to finish is of a make and model never before seen between Canada and Mexico. Their Frenchness shines through at other utterly preventable points as well, such as the cemetery: it is French practice to print surnames in all caps in official and technical contexts, something never done in the US, and so you can be forgiven for wondering why, when it shows the grave of Scott SHELBY,2 he was taken all the way to Paris to be buried. This is the kind of immersion-breaking stuff that is as sloppy as it is preventable, and it’s even a little dangerous: by flagging the narrative eye as that of an outsider – there’s a lot of hand-holding or deliberately leading camera work in Heavy Rain, often in ways that exacerbate the problems with railroading controls described above – the director invites his gaze to be examined on other levels as well.

Doing that, in turn, highlights the most unsavory male gaze of the camera, even – uh, especially, actually – in the chapters where the protagonist player character is a woman. Heavy Rain fails all but the first of the three elements of the Bechdel test, and does so no matter which choices you make. Think about that: an elaborate array of choices, whole branches on a plot tree, fate thrown open, and in none of these parallel universes do two women speak to one another directly – the closest one comes is a mother hearing her infant daughter cry in the next room. The woman among the four main characters spends her entire introductory scene taking a shower and then running around in a bra and panties. Every bit of progress she makes in her sleuthing is bought by bringing some degree of sexual satisfaction to a man, be it the Ethan Mars protagonist of protagonists or one of a panoply of gross villains. The androcentric dramatis personae is not itself problematic given that it’s a game about a serial killer with daddy issues who puts his victims and their fathers through Funny Games- or Saw-like challenges as a kind of sadistic test, but the masturbation material really doesn’t add anything beyond putting another straw onto the back of the camel that has to carry #gamergate around. The only thing I can find to say in the director’s defense here is that the male protagonist, Ethan Mars, is subject to the same voyeuristic camera-fucking more than once, but even if you were to argue that sexuality was tied to his having to prove his heroic manly fatherness to proceed, it’s a little bit more abstract and certainly more dignity-preserving than if he were to have to do a little dance and nearly get his cock out to get to the next level, which is the interrogation method that our Nancy Drew is forced to employ. Here, too, player decision is involved. You actually get an achievement for managing to conk out the smarmy sub-villain before you actually have to expose anything, but there’s no player choice – and therefore no choice on the part of the character, Madison – about whether or not he gets to put his hands on your ass first. Spoiler alert: he does.

And here’s where I get to have the interesting discussion about controls. Giving the player meaningful choice, of course, also gives the player a degree of moral responsibility for the consequences of the choice. I don’t feel morally conflicted about killing Gunther Herrmann in Paris because it’s justified by necessity: not only is it him or me, but I also know in advance what choice the game requires me to make, and you can’t get past that scene until you do the killing, justified or not. But there is more blood on your hands when a killing is avoidable and when it is perfectly possible to progress without doing it, and especially so when instead of just pressing X to shoot, you have to, as a player, issue a much more complex set of instructions or make a much more conscious decision to omit. Quick-time events, a controversial aspect of PS3 control heuristics, are applied to great effect here. Playing as the FBI agent, you must literally react instantly to a suspect swiftly pulling a blurry black object out of his back pocket and raising it toward your colleague. Scott the private detective can save himself from drowning with or without untying the other person in the car, and to untie her, you push and hold a series of buttons and move the controller back and forth, jerking it outwards and away from you to kick out the glass of the car window, allowing you to escape. If an action is performed using the stick, the speed and roughness with which you do it as the character correspond to how you treat the controller as the player. And all these converge in the infamous Lizard scene, where Ethan Mars must3 cut off his own finger. This is not done by clicking a mouse. It is done by holding down a button combination that requires you to move your hand over the PS3 controller into the same shape you would use to hold scissors (as Ethan is doing onscreen) and then, when you have gripped the tool correctly, jerk sharply downward with the whole controller to accomplish the cutting. The effect is a nearly holodeck-like sensation of cutting off your own finger, and I had to force myself to do it against the reflexive recoil of my whole body: the controller vibrated sharply as the scissors impacted the flesh, and stopped when they had cut through. It is the most horrible thing I have yet had to do in a video game. The more intimate mind-machine interface, even though it is a primitive boosting of intimacy, draws the player both physically and morally into the choices he has to make – consider the implications of this given that the Origami Killer, it transpires toward the end, has been one of the player characters all along–, and though a lot of things are murky in the world of Heavy Rain, one thing is clear: nothing comes about in this universe for which you, as the player, are not in some way responsible, from the tragedy that sets the game in motion to its bloody end. JC Denton is a stooge; the real conspiracy runs through the fourth wall.


  1. The only exception to the rain motif is the glorious, sunny, bloom-effect-soaked introductory scene, a children’s birthday party in a gorgeous architect’s home. Sitting down to write this, I initially thought “man, there should be one of those untranslatable German words for exquisite beauty that everyone knows is about to be shattered by horrible tragedy but oh my god isn’t it gorgeous right now, let’s not try to think about the sadness”, and then I realized that the word for this is actually just “beauty”, which only ever exists in a transient state at the cliff’s edge of waste and decay, and now I’m in a really bad mood. [back]

  2. This is not a spoiler because the overwhelming odds are that he will not die when you play the game; there are sixteen different endings. [back]

  3. You don’t have to. You can put the scissors and or knife down, get up, and walk away, and the game accounts for this choice and carries on in a different direction. [back]

Tag Der Deutschen Einheit: Kinderhymne

Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe Leidenschaft nicht noch Verstand Dass ein gutes Deutschland blühe Wie ein andres gutes Land.

Dass die Völker nicht erbleichen Wie vor einer Räuberin Sondern ihre Hände reichen Uns wie andern Völkern hin.

Und nicht über und nicht unter Andern Völkern wollen wir sein Von der See bis zu den Alpen Von der Oder bis zum Rhein.

Und weil wir dieses Land verbessern Lieben und beschirmen wir’s Und das Liebste mag’s uns scheinen So wie andern Völkern ihr’s.

(Bertolt Brecht)

Soldaten sind Mörder

“Da gab es vier Jahre lang ganze Quadratmeilen Landes, auf denen war der Mord obligatorisch, während er eine halbe Stunde davon entfernt ebenso streng verboten war. Sagte ich: Mord? Natürlich Mord. Soldaten sind Mörder.”

Democritus the Third celebrates Veteran’s Day with Kurt Tucholsky. War is a crime and soliders are murderers.

“Seht — wohin? — auf unsere Schuld”

Johann Sebastian Bach, The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Saint Matthew (BWV 244)

Dating in its received form from the 1730s or 1740s, the work is a musical setting of Luther’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew interspersed with arias and recitatives for which the German poet Picander supplied the lyrics. These essentially function as meditations, didactic distancing, or an opportunity for various (and only very vaguely identified) forces to interject who do not have a voice in the gospel itself: the faithful; various personified emotions, etc. And they are, needless to say, the good parts.

Stretch and get a glass of water; this is going to take a while and be kind of intense. Movement 1 is a chorale that begins the multi-hour work in the epic style, by telling you everything that’s about to happen (spoiler alert: Jesus dies in the end), why (to redeem humans), and whose fault it is (ours):

Mvt. 1, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir)

Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,
Sehet – Wen? – den Bräutigam,
Seht ihn – Wie? – als wie ein Lamm!
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig
Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet,
Sehet, – Was? – seht die Geduld,
Allzeit erfunden geduldig,
Wiewohl du warest verachtet.
Seht – Wohin? – auf unsre Schuld;
All Sünd hast du getragen,
Sonst müßten wir verzagen.
Sehet ihn aus Lieb und Huld
Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen!
Erbarm dich unser, o Jesu!

(Inline translation – and this goes for the whole work – is available here; then cf. this and this).

The piece is scored for two complete orchestras and choirs standing side-by-side, and the call-and-response structure of this first choral movement is done between the two: one says “Look”, the other asks “where?”, and the answer comes: upon our guilt.

But one of the interesting things about this work is that it doesn’t proceed exclusively as an epic; it is almost an epic and a drama in parallel, closely following one another but independent nonetheless. At the end of the last supper, the apostles are optimistic to the point of cluelessness, and their expressions of loyalty (the soprano sings a part that might broadly be called “joy”) are sincere but light-minded:

Mvt. 13, “Ich will dir mein Herz schenken” (Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra)

As the situation gets a bit more serious, though, they have to reach for a bit more determination, here struggling to stay awake on the mount of olives as Jesus tries in vain to negotiate with his father about backing out of this whole crucifixion thing. Bach lets the oboe take over the heavy lifting of conveying the urgent striving:

Mvt. 20, “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” (Georg Christoph Biller/Thomanerchor zu Leipzig – A cool detail about this recording: Biller is the director of the Thomanerchor, which is the same position at the head of the same choir that Bach was in charge of when he premiered this piece in the 1720s.)

This is definitely a hallmark entry in my list of Killer Bach Oboe Solos. And the dialogue, the duet, if you like, is between the instrument reaching for the divine aspirations of the apostles and the singer, the human actor, unable to follow through. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

In the same way, the bass soloist, the voice of devotion to Jesus, the urge within his followers that would take his place if it could, offers, continuing Jesus’ metaphor, to drink the same poisoned chalice of crucifixion. This is also the point at which the musical commentary on what’s going on beings to pick up the tension noticeably:

Mvt. 23, “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” (Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra)

But of course, just like only Nixon could go to China, only Jesus could die on the cross. Apostlebros are powerless to stop it, and when Jesus reminds them of that, they loudly protest that they will stand by him no matter what (Mvt. 16, 17, 24). You know the story: Peter is horrified by Jesus’ statement that before the cock crows, Peter will have denied him three times. Which he promptly does. How does Peter – how do we – face God in our utter failure to live up to the things we’ve promised him? That’s one of the central mysteries of Christianity, one that extends beyond the story of Peter into everyone’s relationship with Jesus, and it’s why, when Peter has collapsed in failure, it is not his voice that asks for forgiveness, but the alto, the voice of sorrow.

(She does so in the most famous aria of the Matthäuspassion and, honestly, probably Bach’s most directly moving vocal works. This is him stretching his baroque contemplative detachment to the limit, standing on a cliff of pathos that overlooks all of Romanticism and Wagner in the future, but somehow remains above it.)

John Eliot Gardiner put it like this:

The emotional centre of the St. Matthew Passion is “Erbarme Dich”, Peter’s plea for forgiveness having denied his Christ. In comes the violin announcing “Erbarme Dich”, and the violin can convey, in a way that the human voice could not convey,this concentration of lamentation, of grief, of contrition, of utter, abject horror, yet taken onto a spiritual level because the voiceline of the violin becomes an agent of compassion and forgiveness. And that’s before the singer has sung a note. (ref)

Mvt. 39, “Erbarme dich” (Karl Richter/Münchener Bach-Orchester feat. Julia Hamari)

I will withhold in the interest of giving you something to discover on your own the incredibly intricate, restrained dissonance at the death of Jesus, but here’s a taste of how, as the epic reaches its climax, the dramatic grits its teeth and, as it intensifies, retreats further inward at the same time: the crucifixion is something that we have to solve for ourselves:

Mvt. 49, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Christian Fliegner – Performance note: in Bach’s time, sopranos were boys and altos were countertenors. This is bog-standard HIP.]

And, last thing – just go bloody listen to it – my favorite aria. Right at the end. Jesus is dead, the world is in darkness, and Bach, though in mourning, is absolutely irrepressible:

Mvt. 65, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (Phillip Herreweghe/Kölner Philharmonie 2010)

A link to the complete work is available here, and my favorite recording is far and away this one.

On the occasion of the first Human spacecraft exiting the Solar System

Gavotte en Rondeau from BWV 1006, Partita No. 3 in E, one of Carl Sagan’s musical selections for the Voyager Golden Record

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(John Keats)

Ways in which a game of Super Hexagon is like a human life

  1. It is difficult, brief, and ends in death.
  2. No matter how good you are at it, death is the only possible ending.
  3. Immediately after one ends, another begins. They’re all kind of interchangeable.
  4. It’s especially easy to forget the short ones in which nothing much happens.
  5. Not everything that looks like a lesson is a lesson.
  6. It’s very easy to end it all with one poor choice.
  7. Praise is distracting, often fatally so.
  8. If you escape the jaws of death, don’t rest on your laurels: it’s coming for another bite.
  9. One fatal mistake is not excused by any amount of perfect performance up to that point.
  10. Some things are valuable lessons even if they don’t look like it.
  11. Authoritative female voices shout at you a lot more frequently during the early phase.
  12. In many ways, the music is the best part.
  13. If you make it to 60, well, that’s not too shabby, but it doesn’t make you king of anything. 
  14. After 60, the pressure to perform kind of ebbs.
  15. Everyone plays on hard mode.