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October 1, 2009

Book Notes - Curtis White ("The Barbaric Heart")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Curtis White's writing has been widely praised, and The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money and the Crisis of Nature may be his finest work yet. White takes on our current environmental crisis in unique fashion with his trademark wit and intellectual arguments that the answer may be found in the arts and religion instead of labs and government.

In his own words, here is Curtis White's Book Notes music playlist for his book, The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature:

My new book, The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money and the Crisis of Nature, is, like all my work in fiction and non-fiction, symphonic in its architecture. It is not much concerned with data and facts and making the same argument over and over. It is interested in finding a revealing, perhaps surprising idea (this thing the Barbaric Heart) and then working changes on that idea. It metamorphoses over the course of the book as if it were Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

My book is also interested in the relation of the tragic and the hope for happiness. A very musical way of thinking. Music is obsessed with these two blunt ideas but it seems miraculously capable of articulating this old drama in ways that are deeply affecting for us. In my book, the tragic is easy enough to say: the idea that the warrior virtues of skillful violence still live within most aspects of our culture. If we need to change that sense of violent virtue in order to restore the human and natural world, where do we start? Ban Grand Theft Auto and Monday night football? Make the CEO's play nice? But there is hope in the intellectual performance of the book itself. Immodestly, I say, "If we can learn to think as originally, as playfully, as powerfully, as dangerously as I have in this book, isn't that a reason for faith in the future?" That is immodest, I confess, but every writer who seeks to do the writer's real job—not confirming the world as it stands but creating a rift in its consciousness, a tear out of which something new can emerge—must be both arrogant and, yes, perhaps deluded in this way. Sorry.

But to my list. I'll arrange it in relationship to my chapters as if the music were incidental music to a stage drama.

"Naked Force Clothed in Beauty"

Richard Wagner, Die Walkure

Few musicians have been more willing to reside in the arrogance and violent willfulness of the warrior ethic. Of course, the Ride of the Valkyries has been played and mocked to death. But it still has power in the context of the music drama, especially when it lurks in the background, threateningly, as the Valkyrie "motif." (By the way, I think Hitchcock stole this motif for the shower scene in Psycho. Skreek, skreek, skreek go the violins. Interesting idea even if I'm wrong.) And of course the work is really about how one of the Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, abandons her violence in order to become human and embrace love. It's Wagner's effort to transform the violent world of the Barbaric Heart into love and beauty.

"America's Hot Air Gods"

The Beach Boys, "Our Prayer" (20/20)

This chapter begins my pursuit of a "common language of care" distilled from a cacophony of competing beliefs. The Boys with their simple suburban sweetness reach out universally in this touching a capella masterpiece. Could have done the Beatles' "Because" to the same effect but choices must be made.

"The Idols of Environmentalism"

Bjork, "Cvalda" (Soundtrack for Dancing in the Dark)

In this chapter I challenge environmentalism's dependence on science and technological fixes. In this song Bjork confronts science/technology/industry and transcends it with a single gesture of refusal. She dances away.

"The Ecology of Work"

Radiohead, "Kid A" (Kid A)

Who writes music about the dehumanization of work? I think that you could argue that all of punk is about it in one way or another ("You make me ugly; I'll be uglier than ugly. That will be my revenge.") Radiohead has always been willing to express the inside of alienation while triumphing over it in the raw pleasure of their music. I think of this song as the Song of the Sad Clone. I know that's not what they were thinking, but that doesn't stop me.

"Sustainability: A Good Without Light"

John Coltrane, "My Favorite Things" (My Favorite Things)

In spite of the trite musical theme and Coltrane's restrained dismantling of it, this is Coltrane in an angry mood and already thinking about more violent aggressions on mainstream American culture with Pharoah Sanders. A great disappointment to lovers of the cool jazz that Coltrane once flirted with in Ballads and his work with Johnny Hartmann. "My Favorite Things" is a true musical deconstruction of the smiley face we're always trying to place over brutal realities. "We're going to green capitalism!" It's wonderful, wonderful! as Johnny Mathis sang. Don't believe the hype. Could put NWA's "Fuck the Police" here too. Fuck the Culture Cop, the propagandist.

"Money: the Visible God"

Dimitri Shostakovich, "Chamber Symphony for Strings" (op. 110)
Beck, "Looking Back On Some Dead World," (Mutations)

This is my section on economics. Economics is the world of the "despotic logician" (Nietzsche). But the last of these chapters is called "Socrates, Practice Music." Shostakovich was always all too painfully aware of the despotic function of a demand economy that extended even into the mind of the artist. "Make this for the good of the Party!" The Chamber Symphony is "Written in the heart's blood," as Shostakovich said. This one is so killer sad that it makes you happy to know that someone once could look so deeply into the heart of sadness.

Beck's song (an unlisted bonus track) tears me up. "Looking back on some dead world that seemed so new." Can anyone say self-destruction of the shiny world of Wall Street finance, the barbarians at the vault?

"A Tree-hugger's Faith"

Of Montreal, "The Past is a Grotesque Animal," (Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?)

In this chapter I remind the reader of environmentalism's origins among the slightly crazed artists of Romanticism. Their joyful-in-spite-of–the-facts immersion in God/Nature/Human play. The Dionysian endlessness of the psychedelic improvisation is heir to this tradition. Of Montreal's presiding genius, Kevin Barnes, is an avatar of the psychedelic aura: inspired joyous play in the context of despair and death. An astonishing song.

"Democratic Vistas"

Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna" (Blonde on Blonde)

A final summary statement in which we relax into a sort of sad satisfaction. We have achieved self-clarity. My favorite Dylan song, a song that explains everything and nothing but so perfectly that for a moment we are at peace.

Curtis White and The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature links:

the book's Facebook page
excerpt from the book

Atheist Nexus review
Basil & Spice review
ForeWord review
OnEarth review

Good Books in Bad Times essay by the author
Orion Magazine article by the author
TakePart interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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