Sunday, March 26, 2017

Boldt Words & Images: Transformation

By Bob Boldt

[From a talk to be delivered on April 9 (two weeks from today) to the author’s local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, in Jefferson, Missouri.]

From Maxim Gorky’s anecdote about Lenin listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata:
“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!” Wrinkling up his eyes, Lenin smiled rather sadly, adding: “But I can’t listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm – what a hellishly difficult job!”
The quote from Gorky was the inspiration for the 2006 German film, The Lives of Others, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant film about the German Stasi in the 1980’s. The film asks the question, What is the power of art to transform people and institutions? In our own troubling time, where Keats’s assertion that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” seems to be under assault from all quarters, I believe art is the last, real, creative, transformative, and revolutionary act a free person possesses. Not only has art the power and ability to transform, but it may also be the only thing that can save humanity in this present hour.
    What are the ingredients of transformation? What are the predisposing and the disposing qualities that enable positive transformation to take place? For transformation to take place, there must be both a vision and a viewer to use a visual framework. Or a song and an ear to hear it, as in the case of Lenin.

In the plot of The Lives of Others, a German Communist Party officer lusts after a talented actress. He desires her so much that he employs a Stasi investigation to surveil her lover – celebrated playwright Georg Dreyman – in hopes of convicting him of counterrevolutionary tendencies. A Stasi functionary, Haupmann Gerd Wiesler, is assigned to set up spying apparatus in the apartment above Dreyman’s and listen in on him. Wiesler is an idealist who believes he is doing his duty. Gradually, through listening in on Dreyman, he becomes convinced of the artist’s humanity and genius, and begins to question his devotion and allegiance to the Communist Party. Wiesler purloins a book of Bertholt Brecht’s poetry from Dreyman’s apartment, and his world begins to transform and expand.
Bertholt Brecht
    At a critical moment in the plot, the spy overhears Dreyman playing at the piano a composition by a persecuted composer friend who had just hanged himself. The piano piece is called “Sonata for a Good Man.” We see Wiesler’s face as he listens through spying earphones, and we can see the music filling the man’s soul. When Dreyman finishes playing, he asks his lover, “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” At that point Wiesler begins to work to exonerate Dreyman, and even deliberately fails to report a true crime Dreyman is plotting against the party.

I won’t here go into all the reasons and influences that converted this zealous party functionary into a “good man,” but I touched on some of them in my review of the film, “The music, the music!,” (March 22, 2015). Essentially we have, as I said, visionary – even revolutionary – transformative art, poetry, music, and human love brought to bear on an unlikely person. Why was Wiesler transformed? Any other party functionary would have been content merely to listen and transcribe the goings-on in the apartment below. Wiesler is a moral agent. For him truth is beauty, and because he is not corrupt he is capable of being transformed. Dreyman might have played “Sonata for a Good Man” for a stone as to play it for Wiesler’s boss, who is blinded by his own power, greed, and lust.
V. Lenin
    Many, perhaps most, regard art as mere amusement, a distraction from the trials of what Lenin called a living, filthy hell. To some who have opened the doors of perception, as Blake called them, art is as vital for a free existence as is the blood flowing in a good man’s veins.
    During these troubling days, I keep returning to W.H. Auden’s wonderful poem “September 1, 1939” to guide me in my own transformation. Here is an excerpt from it:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Copyright © 2017 by Bob Boldt


  1. This is Roger Owens as I have said I can't seem to post under my name clearly something I am doing wrong. But Bob, your article made me wonder, what kind of art informs our leaders today? And what might that say about them? I read that GW Bush liked Van Morrison and I remember thinking there was hope for him yet. B Obama seemed to have a wide range of tastes in music, his liking for Bob Dylan raised his stock with me somewhat. It is also interesting to someone like me, having never listened to any sort of hip-hop or rap or whatever, that a President might listen to that sort of thing; my how the world has changed.

    1. Roger, sorry you're having trouble commenting under your own name. Have you clicked on the down-arrow in the "Reply as:" field (below) and selected the "Google" option? That will prompt you to sign in using your Google ID and you should be good to go. (I THINK, from what you say, that you "must" have a Google ID.) If that doesn't work, select the "Name/URL" option and specify your name in the "Name" field (you may leave the "URL" field blank). Good luck! Try it soon and see how it goes.