Ph.D. Octopus

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“The Minstrel Boy” Unites in Song: Star Trek, Paul Robeson, Great Big Sea, and Beyond

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by David

One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”

From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life,  I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.

A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.

If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.

But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version  of “The Minstrel Boy.”

It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.

So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:

The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.

One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:

The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of  them modestly disappeared behind their creation. 

While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.

And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song,  but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together.  Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.


Written by David Weinfeld

October 18, 2013 at 15:41

Didn’t Former Goldman Sachs Banker Greg Smith See American Psycho?

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by David

 Thinking a little more about our friend Greg Smith who just quit his job at Goldman Sachs, it occurred to me that Smith must have a very short memory. He claims that Goldman used to have a “culture” that “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” But when exactly was this? He started at Goldman Sachs 12 years ago, in 2000. But thirteen years before that, in 1987, Tom Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities (25 years ago now!). Four years later, in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis came out with American PsychoBoth novels parody (or celebrate, depending on your point of view, the arrogance, materialism, and overall douchebaggery of Wall Street. The main character in Bonfire, a white Wall Street trader named Sherman McCoy, thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe” (and not the He-man variety, which would have been awesome). In American Psycho, the protagonist, investment banker Patrick Bateman, is driven to a psychopathic murderous rampage (or is he?) because intense elitism and douchebaggery of the corporate culture. No humility there. Heck, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, which some capitalists curiously misinterpret as a celebration of the financial sector, is in fact a criticism of the Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality that was rampant during the 1980s, including, I’m sure, at places like Goldman Sachs.

So yes, the fierce douchbaggery of the financial sector is nothing new, nor is the reputation for pulling a fast one on clients and committing either outright fraud or legal manipulation of unsuspecting customers. Greg Smith should have known that, and could have known that from simply cracking a fun book or watching a fun movie like American Psycho (I doubt there’s an investment banker alive who hasn’t seen that movie). But if the pop culture history isn’t enough, Smith can read this op-ed by William D. Cohan, which documents how

Goldman Sachs has been in and out of trouble throughout its 143 years — chiefly because it chose to put its own interests before those of its clients. What appeared to be a revelation to Smith was actually available to anyone who looked for it, buried deep within Securities and Exchange Commission and court records. Smith could have saved himself grief if he had only used his Stanford education to examine Goldman’s DNA before crossing its threshold.

Cohan’s article, titled “Goldman Sachs’s Long History of Duping its Clients,” focuses on one incident in particular, the June 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation Company, the nation’s largest railroad.” According to Cohan, Goldman Sachs has been screwing over clients since at least 1928. I read the article. Now I think I’m gonna buy Cohan’s book, Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. Greg Smith and all the other former and current financiers should probably read it too.

Still, despite my criticism here, let me re-emphasize that I applaud what Greg Smith has done. Even if his op-ed read a bit like a resume, he still did a good thing. Quitting was the right move, and telling people how sleazy Goldman Sachs has become, even if it, like all the other banks and hedge funds out there, have actually been that sleazy all along, is an extremely important message to get out there. It’s especially important coming from the inside. If it inspires others to quit, or to avoid applying in the first place, it will be a greater accomplishment, and a greater mitzvah, than even winning a gold medal in ping pong at the Maccabiah Games.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 16, 2012 at 21:54

Tolstoy and American Abolitionists

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By Wiz

Excuse my lackluster posting. I suppose I can blame some combination of a surprisingly labor-intensive TA assignment and distractions created by the warm weather in Prospect Park. Also, sucking up my spare time has been a re-reading of War and Peace, this time the fancy new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Sidenote: is the translation all that its cracked up to be? I’m not sure. I can’t say it’s affected me any more than when I read the Maude translation, but I’m a translation skeptic myself. To me, fancy new translations of classic books are like organic vegetables, I can’t really tell if they’re any better, but I can definitely tell that its an excuse to charge me more.)

But, re-reading this reminded me of a topic that I wanted to write about: the influence that American abolitionists had on Leo Tolstoy. This always make me a bit happy, as it combines my academic interests with the more personal. I’ve come to think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalists/Abolitionists whom he appreciates were disturbed by the the new importance of role-playing in the modern market economy, and sought ways to restore people to some sort of unitary moral vision.

The backstory, as Tolstoy himself writes, in The Kingdom of God is Within You, is that a copy of his Confession, got in the hands of one of William Lloyd Garrison’s sons, who sent Tolstoy some of Garrison’s old writings. Tolstoy found them a “powerful and eloquent … expression of a confession of faith.” Intrigued he looked around and found Adin Ballou, an old Garrisonian and Non-Resistant, who was still alive and faithful to the original Christian anarchist strand of Garrison’s thought, and began a correspondence. Unfortunately, as Lewis Perry writes, by the end of his life, Ballou was “bitter and argumentative,” and Tolstoy didn’t learn much. But his reading of Garrison profoundly influenced Tolstoy, who also wrote to Vladimir Tchertkoff of the “spiritual joy” that he found in Garrison’s writing.

Eventually, he wrote to Edward Garnett, that “it came to me that, if I had to address the American people, I should like to thank them for the great help I have received from their writers who flourished about the [Eighteen] fifties. I would mention [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Theodore] Parker, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, [Adin] Ballou, and [Henry David] Thoreau, not as the greatest, but as those who, I think, specially influence me. Other names are [William Ellery?] Channing, [John Greenleaf] Whittier, [James Russell] Lowell, Walt Whitman—a bright constellation, such as is rarely to be found in the literatures of the world. And I should like to ask the American people why they do not pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.”

William Lloyd Garrison

So what explains the affinity? Obviously there is Christian Anarchism, the belief that Christianity specifically forbids the use of force, and as governments are premised on force and violence, no Christian can pledge alliance to a worldly government. Garrison had proclaimed this in the 1830s, and it became central to Tolstoy’s political philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Lewis Perry interpreted the relationship as being about a shared appreciation for religious anarchism.

But this hardly explains some of the Transcendentalists whom Tolstoy celebrates: Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, and Whitman were hardly good Christians.* And Parker, for instance, was one of the “Secret Six” which funded John Brown, whom Emerson and Thoreau also praised, hardly the actions of a good non-resistant. (One more side-note, one sincerely wishes that the misogynistic and sexually repressed Tolstoy of The Kruezter Sonata could have paid more attention to Walt Whitman).

Perhaps Tolstoy simply didn’t have access to enough of their writings or was reading what he wanted. And to be fair, Tolstoy was hardly an orthodox Christian either, so perhaps he was drawn to the rebellious religious vision of the abolitionists.

From my reading of these guys, though, I think there is another, perhaps more abstract level at which Tolstoy and the Transcendentalists/Abolitionists connect. Both, I think, were deeply concerned with the ways that modern life, and especially the social roles that we gravitate towards, tend to limit our vision, and make us forget about our ultimate moral duty. Consider the following . Here is Tolstoy’s description of Napoleon during the battle of Borodino:

A personal, human feeling for a brief moment got the better of the artificial phantasm of life he had served so long. He felt in his own person the sufferings and death he had witnessed on the battlefield. The heaviness of his head and chest reminded him of the possibility of suffering and death for himself. At that moment he did not desire Moscow, or victory, or glory (what need had he for any more glory?). The one thing he wished for was rest, tranquility, and freedom…. Even before he gave that order the thing he did not desire, and for which he gave the order only because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhuman role predestined for him.

Napoleon, as Tolstoy draws him, is not the all-powerful Emperor of Europe, but rather a man driven by forces he doesn’t comprehend, stuck performing tasks thrust upon him by circumstance and by his position as leader. Unable to rise above this, he sets him own fate by invading Russia and by fighting battles because this is what is expected of him, not because it serves any ulimate end worth fighting for. Tolstoy’s “Notes on Soldiers” has a similar theme: the contrast between the official duty of the soldier, which is to murder, rape, and steal; and the duty of the Christian which is to love and heal.

Now consider Emerson on the problem of social roles:

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

And Theodore Parker arguing for why Bostonians, even those who are policemen or judges, should disobey the Fugitive Slave Law and hinder its application:

“My official business as clergyman, fisherman, or statesman, is always beneath my personal duty as man. In case of any conflict between the two, the natural duty ought to prevail and carry the day before the official business; for the natural duty represents the permanent law of God, the absolute right, justice, the balance-point of all interests; while the official business represents only the transient conventions of men, some partial interest; and besides, the man who owes the personal duty is immortal, while the officer who performs the official business is but for a time.”

In this light, then, I think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalist/abolitionists were interested in responding to the rise of a market economy in which old and stable life roles were no longer guides for action. As the industrial revolution expanded the division of labor, and new managerial positions developed around the economy, the old republican ideal of the whole man declined. One no longer could look to traditions and parents for a sense of how they should act. “Nothing is solid,” Emerson wrote, “everything tilts and rocks.” People began playing at roles—a wheat merchant in the morning, a father in the evening, a Christian on Sunday, etc…. No longer were people stuck in a handful of relatively old and stable classes, but instead had the freedom to move in and out of life roles. We so train ourselves to act in these roles– as good soldiers, or good merchants, or good 19th century historians– that our own self and moral center seems to dissolve away, only intelligible in terms of the roles we fulfill.

Tolstoy, I think, and the American thinkers he liked, responded to this problem by celebrating a particularly strict set of ethical duties that should precede the more particular roles that individuals took on. They both constantly asked that we question whether the particular traits that make us a good soldier or a good textile manufacturer might prevent us from becoming a good and moral person.

Speaking personally, I still find this vision meaningful and important. I prefer the more secularized language of Thoreau rather than the overtly Christian language of Tolstoy.

*Yes Parker was a Unitarian minister, but on the far left of the spectrum, such that its arguable whether he was a Christian, depending on how you define the term. He did not, for instance, believe in the special divinity of Christ, but, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that Christ only breathed of the same divinity that was open to all of us, if only we were ready for it.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 17, 2011 at 22:42

Huck Finn and Teaching the “N-word”

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by Weiner

Growing up in Canada, I was never required to read Mark Twain, so I never did (I do remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where he appears as Samuel Clemens though). With the controversy surrounding the editing of the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’ve decided to go out and read it. I’ve also realized that as someone who aspires to teach American history, this particular controversy is rather important to me. I know I don’t support the changing of the text, but I do think that teaching the “n-word” is difficult, no matter what the race of the students or teacher. With that, I link to this outstanding essay from Autumn 2005 issue of The American Scholar, “Teaching the N-Word,” by University of Vermont English professor Emily Bernard. Here’s a taste:

Over the next 30 minutes or so, Eric and I talk about “nigger.” He is uncomfortable; every time he says “nigger,” he drops his voice and does not meet my eyes. I know that he does not want to say the word; he is following my lead. He does not want to say it because he is white; he does not want to say it because I am black. I feel my power as his professor, the mentor he has so ardently adopted. I feel the power of Randall Kennedy’s book in my hands, its title crude and unambiguous. Say it, we both instruct this white student. And he does.

Read the whole thing. And also read the post from the US Intellectual History blog by Lauren Kientz Anderson which directed me to Bernard’s article.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 19, 2011 at 10:46