Updated: Apr 14
When I played the Quartet for the End of Time at the Boston Conservatory in 1974, I wondered why my violin was in an ensemble practice room with a clarinet, cello, and piano—an unlikely combo for an assigned rehearsal. Autumn was bleak and windy on Boston's Fenway Park, and I wanted to get home before dark. I soon learned that Messiaen composed Quatour pour la Fin du Temps for the only musicians available at the time in Stalag VIIIA in Gorlitz, Silesia. The four of them performed the quartet for the camp Nazis on January 15, 1941: Jean Le Boulaire, violin; Henri Akoka, clarinet; Etienne Pasquier, cello; and Olivier Messiaen himself, piano.
They all survived the war, though not without its scarrings. Akoka escaped while being transferred by train to another camp. Le Boulaire took on a new name for a new career. A sympathetic guard arranged for Messiaen's own return to France.
During our peculiar pandemic era, with its solitary lockdowns and rising global tyrannies, its burning forests and brutal street executions, its deadly floods and earthquakes, I've often heard this music ringing in my ears. The birdlike lyrical line, the crashing unison, the haunting echoes of an apocalyptic age, the terrain a cold set of empty dunes, with a lone and lunatic voice crying out: is anyone out there? can you hear me?
Surviving sadistic cruelty elevates a momentary and beneficial fight-flight-frozen response to chronic and debilitating terror; the ability to cultivate art within this barren landscape is therefore truly heroic. The powerful sagas and poetry written under duress and censorship, the paintings and scores torn deep from inner cries of despair—these are works we treasure.
Whence this cruelty?
The philosopher Richard Rorty, late in life, wrote about the “socially accepted sadism” that not only perpetuates the humiliation and violence of racism and misogyny but also justifies its own acts of torture. He predicted the rise of a populist strongman who would not only worsen the living conditions of Americans but "quickly make his peace with the international superrich,” adding that "the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion" (Achieving Our Country, 1998).
All of this has come to pass, witnessed daily in a barrage of news so vile that it's getting harder to look. What used to draw our attention like roadside kill is now making us frozen and distraught; we move past the horror with the bowed heads of those who cannot even bear to look anymore.
Again, why? Whence such cruelty?
Describing Rorty's work, John Stoer wrote that these autocratic measures are not inconsistent and hypocritical, but rather sadist: "Sadists are sadistic not because they are cruel. It’s much simpler than that. They are cruel because being cruel to people deserving cruelty feels good."
Being cruel to people deserving cruelty feels good.
But when your righteousness includes hatred towards me, when your entitlement involves making me suffer, when your superiority allows you to murder me, when your arrogance delegates me as a creature without a heartbeat while harboring the beating heart of another, please do not say God told you so. There is no God who fails to acknowledge my heartbeat.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls this kind of ideology "sadopopulism," in which the administration of pain is deliberate. He notes that people will even vote against their own interests if those they hate and judge will suffer even more.
In 1974 Boston, my own drama included a similar violence, though at the time I saw the phenomenon purely on an individual level. Its effect on me, however, was far reaching on my life and my music, its source rooted in thousands of years of an "acceptable" sadism toward persons of my anatomy. My attempts to repress the brutality and its devastation of my health and stability involved hiding in among the Back Bay bohemians and the party-girl lushes, the artists and musicians happy to ingest whatever festive substance was available. What looks right at night was usually a bad idea by dawn, though, and things got lost...where is the black satin concert-dress, left in the wrong apartment on Commonwealth? Or was it Newbury Street? Lost also were many, many hours, the good kind of sleep, the days spent in dark fear, while the city moved on around me.
Messiaen dedicated his Quartet for the End of Time to the Angel of the Apocalypse,"who raises his hand towards Heaven saying 'There shall be no more time.'"
When life is intolerable, we want time itself to stop. Cruelty and sadism push us beyond our human capacity to withstand...though if we do survive, there shines a ray of hope, some small lyrical voice rings out, some small promise that we shall, in time, overcome.
And we shall. We shall. Overcome.
31 October 2021