Friday, January 29, 2016

Honorable Symphonies, the Greatest Composers

I enjoy classical music throughout the year but winter is a particularly good season to listen. Fewer daylight hours and colder weather limit my time outside.  I usually have something classical playing in the background as I read. Beginning with the holidays in December and so far into 2016, I have listened to and reacquainted myself with a number of symphonies. 

Of course, as I posted before, Shostakovich's Great Tenth is always on my playlist this time of year. Russian sensibilities seem well-suited for cold cloudy or rainy days.  Listening to Tchaikovsky's Great Sixth around Christmas brought back to mind my 12-part series (written between early 2010 and early 2013) on my favorite full-orchestra masterpieces. It occurred to me as I listened to other symphonic works that several of these compositions deserved to be mentioned in the series. Just for fun, I decided to create an "honorable mention" category so that a few additional "great" symphonies could be placed in context with the other "greats" I already wrote about. 

I originally mentioned that John Corigliano deserved consideration when I reviewed Alan Hovhaness.  So it is really with Corigliano that this whole idea of honorable mention originated. Corigliano is a contemporary composer I have followed for years. His Symphony No. 1 (1988), is a rich, modern piece with definitive classical influences.  It is an emotionally charged symphony, wandering over 40-minutes through anger, fear, melancholia, love and sincerity. The brass section is loud and heavy in the traumatic first movement. This alternates with moments of lyrical reflection, best illustrated by the subtle use of piano underneath the strong string sections. The second movement is an angry struggle for sanity and is more challenging, though rewarding, to hear. 

The third movement features some beautifully accentuated cello and piano, while the orchestra toys with 12-tone variations.  The final movement returns to the key of the first after exploring a lively march-rhythm and a sonic explosion carried mostly by brass again. I own the original CD release of Corigliano's Great First and have enjoyed listening to it for probably 25 years.  It deserves to be acknowledged as a masterpiece though I do not consider the work to be preferred over any of my previous Great First choices

I do not have honorable mentions for every symphonic category in my canvassing of the art form.  Witold Lutoslawski's Great Fourth is next on my honorable mention list.  Lutoslawski is probably my favorite overall modern classical composer of symphonic music. His 20-minute Fourth was finished in 1992, and is his last full-scale composition.  It is a symphony in two movements performed without pause mimicking the continuous presentation of his Great Third symphony.  

There are an enormous number of solo parts featured throughout this comparatively brief work. Almost all wind and brass instruments are featured individually along with more esoteric ones such as bongos and marimba. This is a sonic soundscape that has many textures, many unions and disruptions, and moments of melodic ease in what I perceive to be Lutoslawski's distinctive style. The symphony works itself into a magnificent, pulsating finish which makes me go "wow" every time I listen to this splendid, short but densely packed work. 

My next honorable mention goes to Franz Schubert, who composed his Great Fifth symphony in 1816.  It is steeped in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart.  It is actually not as innovative and distinctive as some of the other symphonies mentioned in this post.  Yet it is highly rewarding to hear this 26-minute masterpiece.  The first movement is upbeat, proud with several catchy flourishes of orchestral lightheartedness. The second movement is beautiful and slightly melancholy. The third is a highly traditional, energetic minuet. The finale is lively and morphs into the happy mood of the symphony's beginning. It is all technically precise, emotionally precise, its construction is the most traditional symphony mentioned in this post.  Yet, because it is so comfortable and sounds so familiar, it warms the listener and sentimentally quiets all anxiety with bright optimism. 

I have two honorable mentions for the Great Unnumbered symphony category.  The first is a reworking by John Adams of the primary orchestral pieces in his Doctor Atomic opera. His Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007) is a joy to hear and proves that great classical music is still being composed today.  I have previously reviewed this Great symphony here. This is a highly entertaining 25-minute symphony though it is merely the exploration of musical possibilities contained within the opera. 

The other Great Unnumbered honorable mention goes to Georges Bizet.  Bizet composed his Symphony in C (1855) when he was only 17.  This 35-minute work is a superb composition and has undertones of Schubert and Mozart but in a distinct mid-romantic style. For me, the best part of this composition is the second movement's wonderful oboe solos following an upbeat opening movement.  The third and fourth movements are happy and energetic leading to a lilting finale.  The work was forgotten during Bizet's lifetime and only performed after his death.  It is highly accessible and can easily be appreciated by the most casual music listener. Yet it is a more sophisticated work than it might first seem and qualifies as a masterpiece. 

One thing leads to another in often unexpected ways. So as I was listening and contemplating these honorable symphonies, I wondered how the individual composers stacked up comparatively through history according to my original reviews. As an entertaining mental exercise, who are my choices for the greatest symphonic composers? 

To make things a bit more interesting I am going to assign 3-points to the “winning” composer of each of my original posts and 1-point to any other symphony reviewed as part of the series.  The honorable mentions I just added receive no points. While I truly enjoy all of them, none are superior to the selections I have previously made. The point system is problematic for the Great Sixths.  Since that is considered by me as a three-way tie for first I will award each composer 3-points. Considering the numerous symphonies of Haydn and Mozart also presents some challenge in terms of assigning points.  I arrived at those numbers rather subjectively with each composer racking up 3-points and 1-point from the various symphonies I mentioned. 

How does it all add up?  Who is the greatest symphonic composer of all time and what is his margin of victory? 

Let’s begin at the bottom of the ladder with all the composers who did not win a category and are only mentioned once throughout the series.  They receive 1-point each.  Here they are in alphabetical order (with the corresponding symphony in parenthesis): Samuel Barber (1), César Franck (U), Philip Glass (8), Henryk Gorecki (3), Franz Liszt (U), Witold Lutoslawski (3), Felix Mendelssohn (4), Sergei Prokofiev (2), and Robert Schumann (3). Hector Berlioz (U*) is the only other symphonist mentioned but once.  He gets 3-points, however, for winning the Unnumbered category. 

Antonín Dvořák is mentioned twice (2, 9) so he comes in behind Berlioz with 2-points. Asterisks (*) represent first-place in my series. Jean Sibelius is mentioned three times (2, 5, 7) so his 3-points places him in a tie with Berlioz in terms of total score. Above that we have three Great composers who score 4-points each: Johannes Brahms is noted twice (1, 3*), as is Franz Schubert (8*, 9), while Anton Bruckner is mentioned four times (4, 7, 8, 9). So, I would place these three composers in the middle-tier of giants of symphonic composition. 

Alan Hovhaness comes in next with 8-points, which is probably controversial as he is clearly one of the weaker composers considered. Still, his prolific output and his frequent mastery of solo pieces within his compositions is deserving of distinction, though I personally would not rank him artistically above most of the previously mentioned composers.  I give him 3-points for his Great 50th symphony and 1-point for each of the other five symphonies mentioned. So, he is a bit of a surprise.   Pyotr Tchaikovsky is no surprise, however.  He also receives 8-points on a far less extensive body of work compared with Hovhaness. Tchaikovsky was reviewed six times (1, 2, 4, 5, 6*, U). 

Joseph Haydn stands a notch above with 10-points for the several symphonies mentioned in my post on his compositions. His amazing 104 symphonies are reflective of an immense and highly qualified body of work almost unmatched in cultural history. Dimitri Shostakovitch composed 15 by comparison but the Russian matches Haydn in total points while also being noted six times (1, 5*, 7, 8, 10*, 15). 

That leaves just three composers mentioned in this series. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (various mentioned) and Ludwig van Beethoven (3*, 5, 6*, 7*, 9*) are tied with 13-points each. Mozart has the distinction of superb work over the course of 40-plus symphonic compositions.  Beethoven has the distinction of finishing with four first-place symphonies, more than any other composer in my reviews. 

Finally, at the summit, is Gustav Mahler with three wins and 16-points all total.  His work is reviewed far more frequently than anyone throughout my posts, ten times all total (1*, 2*, 3, 4, 5, 6*, 7, 8, 9, U).  Somewhat ironically, his Great Ninth is perhaps the greatest of all his compositions and yet it has to finish second to Beethoven in that category due to the fact that Beethoven’s Great Ninth outshines every other symphony, period. 

Nevertheless, there are no inferior Mahler symphonies and I recognize all of his completed compositions (his Tenth was unfinished) as a body of work that surpasses everyone, even the prolific mastery of Haydn and the consistent supremacy of Beethoven, as the greatest symphonic composer in history. You cannot go wrong listening to a Mahler symphony. They are all brilliant, each in its own way, and are as vibrant and complex and modern sounding today as when they were first conceived. 

So my (unplanned) top five composers of all-time turn out to be:

Mahler, 16-points 
Beethoven, 13-points (first-place in four categories) 
Mozart, 13-points 
Haydn, 10-points 
Shostakovich, 10-points

I do not pretend this to be an exhaustive list of high symphonic achievement.  There are many, many other symphonies in my music collection that I don't mention at all anywhere in this series.  I enjoy listening to these excellent symphonies, some could possibly be considered as Great. But, I am sure my favorite symphonies have all been mentioned somewhere in my classical music posts to date. 

They are here arranged in some order of comparison, not necessarily the degree to which I listen to them. Beethoven's Great Ninth is the greatest of all symphonies but that does not mean I listen to it more than others.  I don't.  I listen to Lutoslawski's Great Third far more often, for example. I rank Hovhaness very high but I don't really listen to him much.  My personal tastes are, therefore, strictly an intimate, often instinctual connection with the music and has little to do with the music's true historic significance.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

At the Tail End of the Storm

This is the winter storm as it appeared about 8AM Friday morning.  Heavy rains in Georgia and Florida as snow fell from western Tennessee into Virginia.  Eastern Kentucky got the worst of it at this stage as indicated in the darker blue regions were the snowfall was most intense.  The following pics are how the storm played out in roughly 8-hour intervals.  The blue is snow, the pink is ice, yellow is heavy rain, and green is lite rain.
Jonas only arrived at DC after I left work late-Friday afternoon.  Eastern North Carolina was getting a lot of sleet.
Heavy thunderstorms along the North Carolina coast caused local flooding as it fueled the storm's snowfall.  Our small amount of snow began to fall as the storm swirled into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Jonas roared onward into New York City and glanced Boston before finally going out to sea late Saturday afternoon, dumping up to 40 inches of snow in several places about 100 miles west of DC.  We got a few flurries at this point.
Winter Storm Jonas (a name attributed to the storm by The Weather Channel) roared through this weekend.  Beginning Friday the storm dumped massive amounts of snow on parts of eastern Kentucky where 15-18 inches fell before moving on toward Baltimore and DC with 50-70 mph wind gusts but the heavier snowfall was a bit west of there.  About seven inches had fallen in DC by sunrise Saturday, with the snow storm still engulfing the region.  Jonas hit New York City before finally moving out off the eastern coast by about sunset Saturday.

I confess that weather is a hobby of mine.  It might seem kitsch or at least uncool.  But weather interests me, especially historic weather moments that I am part of in the Now, united with other Americans as only weather can unite, the great equalizer.  I watch hurricanes and storms on various internet sites and have a general awareness of weather patterns, since I have enjoyed this as a hobby for decades of my life.  


Jonas is not the biggest snow to ever hit this region, but it does rival some historic past snow storms. We caught the tail end of the storm here.  So our little bit of snow was connected with the vast weather system of snow fallen on 85 million people affected by the storm.


But we southerners are snow wimps.  About 4PM Friday my boss told me that the rain (about an inch had fallen all day with temperatures in the upper 30’s) was turning to slush and to dismiss my department and go home early.  It was still mostly steady rain as I drove home in my trusty Subaru. Just as I turned up my driveway the rain stopped completely and immediately transitioned into snow.  


By the time I pulled up to the house and got out of my Subaru it was snowing more heavily.  The wind was completely still at this point.  We were in a large band of wintry mix on the backside of the massive monster so the winds had not started yet. It was 36 degrees and the snow fell in large fluffy flakes like cotton falling slowly, silently straight down out of the sky. It was beautiful.  The only sounds were of birds, no breeze nor traffic.  Each flake melted the moment it hit the wet warmer earth.


That lasted maybe 5-10 minutes then the rain started in again.  We did not get any snow that actually started laying on the wet ground until about 6PM and then it was just a dusting, but it covered the top of the Subaru and our roof. Darkness came and temperatures were at 34 degrees, still above freezing.  You could hear water dripping through our gutter system from light melting on our roof.  Still no wind. That was a good thing because it allowed the small accumulation of ice on the trees to melt so that by 8PM when it started snowing more persistently and temperatures dropped below freezing there was no added weight from ice on branches.


My only anxiety was about trees falling in the storm winds that I knew were coming from internet weather reports.  That is a common way to lose power in the countryside where I live, trees falling on power lines.  It has happened many times since 1993.  A couple of days before Christmas we got 7 inches of rain in 48 hours and have not had a dry spell since. The inch of rain we got before the snow began made the ground soft and mushy.  About 2AM Saturday morning the snow stopped and wind gusts of up to 30 mph hit.


When I woke up and had my first cup of coffee Saturday morning we had about a half-inch of snow on the ground.  It was 26 degrees with the trees swaying in a steady 10-15 mph wind.  This was the complete opposite, of course, to that wondrous silent snow moment when I first arrived home Friday.  We had some flurries later in the morning and the winds were relentless.  At times the wind kicked the snow around in a crazy motion, gusts up to 35 mph, like a blizzard.


But, of course, we were on the tail end of Jonas.  At that same moment it was still snowing in DC and Baltimore.  Jennifer and I enjoyed an aimless and quiet morning with coffee and our iPads.  We dropped the heat settings in the house and added extra clothing layers to help the heat pump keep us warm.  We lost power for about 10 seconds at one point, which of course caused us to touch a flash of dread.  We were prepared with a small propane heater as backup if necessary but fortunately that was the extent of the outage.  Jennifer took Charlie for a walk outside.  I took some photos from the car port and front porch after emptying the dish washer.


Jennifer made some incredible white bean chicken chili Friday night.  We wanted to cook it while we were fairly certain the weather would not interfere with the electricity. Just in case.  The chili was amazing and a perfect dining experience for being a spectator of Jonas, especially since she made cornbread to go with it.  Made four quarts and were set for whatever happened next.  


Late morning on Saturday the winds remained strong but the flurries stopped and the clouds started breaking up just a little bit.  The sun teased us, bursting out for a few seconds now and then. We brought our bird feeders inside briefly to let them thaw out.  They were hanging frozen by the cold gusty wind.  The birds went crazy after we sat them back filled with fresh seed.  Lots of cardinals and blue jays about.


We enjoyed homemade waffles and scrambled eggs for a late breakfast on Saturday.  Jennifer played music off her iPhone via a portable Apple speaker system we own - Motown for awhile and Stevie Wonder if possible but some Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in there too.  Our plan was to binge-watch Northern Exposure.  We were well into Season 3 after blazing through the first two short-seasons of the great show from the 1990’s, beginning around New Year’s Day.  We were both big fans of the show back in the day.  It won six emmies the year before we moved into our house.  We definitely watched it on free TV here for a couple of years though we lost interest in it before its sixth season came long.  So now some of this is going to be new Northern Exposure to go with all the great moments I remember about this bold, clever and humorous TV series.


DC got hammered and the snow kept coming.  The top snowfall as of 11AM Saturday was 28.5 inches at Redhouse, Maryland.  There were two dozen similar towns reporting 20+inches and snow still falling.  Our half-inch and cold strong winds were, like southerners as a people in winter time, wimpy by comparison.


So we watched a couple of episodes of Northern Exposure after a late lunch.  Afterwards I ventured outside for the first time.  I wanted to crank the Subaru and let it defrost. Meanwhile, I walked down our driveway through the sharp steady frigid wind.  It was 31 degrees.  I wanted to check the mail and the condition of the road.  There were limbs and branches everywhere along the driveway. The wind did not let up.


The road was in good condition for driving.  So Jennifer and I bundled up and drove over to visit with my parents.  “We waited to get out until it warmed up to freezing,” I joked with my dad.  We took them a quart of Jennifer’s amazing white bean chili.  My nephew and youngest niece were there.  I goofed around with them for awhile before Jennifer and I left and headed into town.  


We noticed that there was considerably less snow in town.  It was just a true dusting of it there.  But the sharp gusty winds caused a lot of evaporation even though temperatures remained below freezing.  So, perhaps 2PM was no longer an accurate depiction of how much snow fell in town. We did some grocery shopping and picked up a couple of items at the local Home Depot before heading back home.  The wind was biting as we walked through those parking lots.


But we didn’t get more snow.  Anxiety over a thin sheet of ice and half-inch of snowfall seems comically panicked to the many millions who bore the brunt of Jonas.  We caught only the tail as it whipped around northwest to southeast in frequent gusts of cold air.  Back home, Jennifer and I drank a little while listening to some great jazz music over my iPad and Apple TV from a station in France. We also checked out House Speaker Paul Ryan’s live web cam of the snow from the Capitol Building. That was pretty cool.  We never got back to watching Northern Exposure.  So the viewing “binge” was a wimpy effort for Saturday.  Long-time readers know I am not in to watching TV that much.


By this morning the winds and clouds were gone. Not just here but in DC and New York City as well. The East Coast was quiet and pummeled from Kentucky to New York. Reports on total amounts varied in the early morning media. I walked outside with my first cup of coffee and watched a full moon set in the clear west.  It was 24 degrees but perfectly still, no birds, no traffic, no neighbors.  It took several minutes of exposure before I began to feel chilled standing as I was coatless and in my sweat pants and sweater.


Of 85 million people affected from my house north only about 250,000 lost power, which is an amazingly low number considering the amount of snow and the strength of the sustained winds.  The deepest reports of snow accumulation were 40-inches in some outlying areas of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland including Harper’s Ferry.  


The storm was originally predicted to only skirt New York City.  Instead it hit the city head-on as it went out into the Atlantic, giving NYC its third largest snowfall in history, almost 27 inches. Central Park itself got 26.6 inches, a record-breaking amount for that large portion of Manhattan.  The Baltimore-DC area was buried under about two feet of snow.   


Jonas is an historic storm, it connects collective human experience with the past, with now dead people amidst now forgotten winter storms.  Its winds and snowfall amounts would have devastated my home and everyone around here. Atlanta and Chattanooga and Birmingham are not equipped like Baltimore and Philadelphia and NYC in terms of snow moving equipment.  For Jonas, I’m not sure any of them had enough to stay ahead of the snow.  I wish the best to my fellow countrymen as they dig out their collective lives.  


Today was sunny, clear skies, scant breeze.  It got up into the mid-40’s which melted virtually all the snow.  I went for a run and did household chores. Mid-afternoon I got my chain saws out and cut some trees and branches for the first time in 2016. Jennifer helped me haul all the branches into the ditches in our woods.  Branches lie everywhere on our driveway and trails, had to be picked up, trivial tokens of my land on the edge of something vast and hazardous.  I looked toward the northeast and breathed a sigh of relief.  The true fury of Jonas was elsewhere.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Articulating Relevance: A Resolution

In late December, I came across a superb op-ed piece in The New York Times by Roy Scranton, author of an excellent book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.  The NYT article was simply titled, We're Doomed. Now What? It was one of the most powerful pieces of writing that I had the privilege to read in 2015.  It resonated with me on so many levels and I found very little to fault in its perspective - it is so close to my own, articulated better than I can do. 

I have written about the beginning of the Anthropocene before.  It is a subject that I continue to find intriguing.  For the first time in the expanse of history human beings find themselves significant participants in various environmental systems on Earth.  Our species affects the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle (to cite two examples) in ways that were previously impossible - so inconsequential was our presence on the planet.  

Such is the under-heralded power of modern humanity.  We have grown to become as much a factor in the Earthly order of things as anything else in nature. It strikes me as myopic to doubt the coming of the Anthropocene and everything that its tangibility entails.  On the other hand, those who embrace this reality can find relevant meaning within it - and possibly find their place in the universe, in spite of the consequences.  Indeed, finding our relevant place in this existential reality, this newly arrived at human geologic age might be essential to our very survival. 

The Sunday after New Year's Day, I went for a long run.  Upon returning I found Jennifer doing a bit of weeding in our gardens.  We chit chatted for awhile outside as I cooled down.  At one point she asked: "So what are your new year's resolutions?"  It briefly confounded me.  Here I was three days into the new year, suddenly I realized that, not only did I not make any resolutions, I had not even thought about it.  The whole concept of resolving something for 2016 simply had not entered my mind.  Strange. 

Considering this later I realized that, perhaps, I made one resolution without being consciously aware of it.  I want to articulate why I find traditional approaches to human meaning inadequate, particularly religious and "spiritual" (however you want to define that vague term) approaches, and to define how a more relevant meaning is possible - in the Anthropocene.  

How that might happen begins with a recognition of who we are as a species and our place on this Earth, as well as what we need as individuals to grow and mature in a world where religions and traditional concepts of spirituality have proven themselves inadequate to address the urgent needs of humanity and our home, Earth.  

I resolved to see the Earth as it is in this moment, not simply within my ability to precieve, but more importantly within the tangibility of manifestation - within the fact that half the wildlife on our planet has been wiped out in the industrial age, for example. You won't find the truth of that fact inside yourself.  It is definitely out there. Very particularly, our introspective approaches to guidance have failed us in terms of addressing wars, genocide, environmental crises, domestic violence, chauvinism, racism, depression, and a general malaise among humanity.  

Clearly, we are not an enlightened species in this moment; though we are quite clever and we exhibit all the longings for meaning and understanding.  Maybe it is time to redefine what "enlightenment" might mean.  Is there an enlightenment more relevant than human happiness and peace and compassion within ourselves?  I think the answer is yes. Because seeking that inner peace and our displays of compassion so far have not brought outer peace to a violent world.  So, I question the relevance of our traditionally accepted "path to peace."  

In his NYT piece, Scranton provides as good an introduction to this issue as any I have read.  He calls everyone out on this, no matter your politics or belief system, you need to take relevant ownership of your life and of this Earth, not just find a way to feel good about being alive.  Feeling "good" or "insightful" or "connected" has clearly been our practice for centuries and it has not resulted in anything more than a few people or communities who believe they have "arrived" spiritually or rationally even as the planet seethes in chaos. Just look out there for a moment and you can see all this - the Being of Earth.  You think you can separate your reality from the Earth in this moment? 

So I want to open this blog in 2016 with a nod to Scranton's editorial.  I have edited the original piece down for the sake of brevity.  But it serves as a great starting point for my 2016 "resolution".  You can read the entire op-ed piece here.

Meanwhile, as the gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear: if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway.

You can feel this nihilism in TV shows like “True Detective,” “The Leftovers,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” and you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred. It defines our current moment, though in truth it’s nothing new. The Western world has been grappling with radical nihilism since at least the 17th century, when scientific insights into human behavior began to undermine religious belief. 
Scientific materialism, taken to its extreme, threatens us with meaninglessness; if consciousness is reducible to the brain and our actions are determined not by will but by causes, then our values and beliefs are merely rationalizations for the things we were going to do anyway. Most people find this view of human life repugnant, if not incomprehensible.
...our dogged insistence on free agency makes a kind of evolutionary sense. Indeed, humanity’s keenest evolutionary advantage has been its drive to create collective meaning. That drive is as ingenious as it is relentless, and it can find a way to make sense of despair, depression, catastrophe, genocide, war, disaster, plagues and even the humiliations of science.

Our drive to make meaning is powerful enough even to turn nihilism against itself. As Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Western philosophy’s most incisive diagnosticians of nihilism, wrote near the end of the 19th century: “Man will sooner will nothingness than not will.” This dense aphorism builds on one of the thoughts at the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy, today so widely accepted as to be almost unrecognizable, that human beings make their own meaning out of life.

Nietzsche wasn’t himself a nihilist. He developed his idea of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” into a more complex philosophy of perspectivism, which conceived of subjective truth as a variety of constructions arising out of particular perspectives on objective reality. The more perspectives we learn to see from, the more truth we have access to. This is different from relativism, with which it’s often confused, which says that all truth is relative and there is no objective reality. Fundamentally, Nietzsche was an empiricist who believed that beyond all of our interpretations there was, at last, something we can call the world — even if we can never quite apprehend it objectively. “Even great spirits have only their five fingers breadth of experience,” he writes. “Just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”

Nietzsche’s positive philosophical project, what he called his “gay science,” was to create the conditions for the possibility of a human being who could comprehend the meaninglessness of our drive to make meaning, yet nonetheless affirm human existence, a human being who could learn “amor fati,” the love of one’s fate: this was his much-misunderstood idea of the “overman.”

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point. We’re already one degree Celsius above preindustrial temperatures and there’s another half a degree baked in. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

Yet it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it. Because if it’s true that we make our lives meaningful ourselves and not through revealed wisdom handed down by God or the Market or History, then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives — wholly, utterly — by changing what our lives mean. Our drive to make meaning is more powerful than oil, the atom, and the market, and it’s up to us to harness that power to secure the future of the human species.

...we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole. We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.

We were born on the eve of what may be the human world’s greatest catastrophe. None of us chose this, not deliberately. None of us can choose to avoid it either. Some of us will even live through it. What meaning we pass on to the future will depend on how well we remember those who have come before us, how wisely and how gently we’re able to shed the ruinous way of life that’s destroying us today, and how consciously we’re able to affirm our role as creators of our fated future.

Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.

Note: By coincidence, a scientific study on the Anthropocene was released as I was developing this post.  This spawned numerous articles in the media.  Some are sprinkled throughout the post above.  Others can be read here, here, here, here, and here.