“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.” — Nietzsche, Maxims and Arrows #43
Rereading Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, with its “great declaration of war,” whether with a hammer or a tuning fork, on universal idols, I thought immediately—and irrelevantly—of Barack Obama. When this charismatic leader first came on the political scene, I was dazzled. A presidential candidate who fused the legacies of White Kansas (his mother) and Black Africa (his father), a presidential candidate who had published two serious books—Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope—and had actually read Kafka and Dostoevsky, a brilliant law student who became the first Black president of the Harvard Law review and whom the famous law professor Lawrence Tribe called “the most impressive student I have ever taught.” Then, too, this special candidate was also a superb rhetorician: I still remember the thrill of hearing Obama announce that his aim was to speak “not for the blue states or the red states but the United States.”
Who could not be impressed by such “audacity of hope”? And yet Obama turned out to be a rather mediocre president—cautious and fearful of public opinion, as when he suddenly renounced, on a technicality, his much touted “red line” against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, thus signalling to the world that whatever atrocities committed by a foreign nation, the US would simply sit on its hands. Even so, nothing could quite prepare us for Obama’s post-presidency, with its overt emphasis on money and celebrity. When I read last month about his 60th birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard, I could hardly believe I was reading about the same person who had once been a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. The new Obama, forced to cut the guest list for his party because of the threat of COVID, eliminated his own key Presidential Advisor David Axelrod in favor of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Hollywood had won.
For me, Obama is the prototypical fallen idol. In retrospect, the quality he lacked despite his brilliance—a quality rarely talked of today—was courage, the irony being that courage today, far from being a quality possessed by presidents or generals, is found in certain artists who have managed to follow the courage of their convictions. And here my idol is John Cage. I remember when, as a fledgling professor, I first read “The Future of Music: Credo,” the first essay in Silence (1961):
I BELIEVE THAT THE USE OF NOISE
Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of “sound effects” recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any one of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. Given four film photographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.
With these words and the new “sonic” representation of “explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide,” Cage changed twentieth-century music forever. And not just music, but art and poetry as well. Yet throughout his career, Cage was taunted by naysayers. Anyone, it was said, could “compose” these absurd and boring pieces! To which Cage responded smilingly, “Of course they could, but they don’t.”
I came to know Cage quite well in his last decade—he stayed with me at Stanford when his Music Circus was being performed at the university—and the quality that struck me most was his doggedness. However sweet, polite, and gentle Cage was, he was dogged in his insistence that his work be performed or exhibited precisely to his specifications. No guess-work or approximation allowed! Once a piece was finished, however, he never brooded about criticism. He told me he never read reviews of his own work, always beginning the next project as soon as the previous one was finished. Like his great friend Jasper Johns—another idol of mine—the applicable motto was “Do Something. Do something else.”
I have been talking of moral courage, but what about its more conventional physical component? As of two weeks ago, I have a new idol, this time female: the beautiful, sophisticated and astonishingly brave Clarissa Ward, the CNN correspondent who was reporting from Afghanistan at the time of Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from the bleeding nation. Covered up like a nun and standing in the midst of the loud and angry mob of Afghans, Clarissa literally risked her life to tell us what was happening, enduring constant catcalls to “Cover your face,” or “Where are your gloves?” from the Taliban fighters in the crowd. It looked, at moments, like touch and go—bombs whizzed by overhead—but the reporter remained remarkably calm. Her voice remained modulated. But also very forthright: while Biden and his mendacious Secretary of State Anthony Blinken kept insisting how well things were going, Clarissa Ward told Anderson Cooper, “If this doesn’t look like defeat, I don’t know what defeat is.”
“A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal”: it is, as Nietzsche says, the stuff our idols are made of.