In the old style of Plutarch’s parallel lives, I should like to compare two transgressive performers, a Western journalist-cum-performance-artist and a Chinese classical pianist. The object of the exercise is to illustrate why we might be living in the last days of the West. Don’t panic, but this is not a drill.
The star and standard-bearer for the most successful conservative website is Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart Media’s technology editor. Yiannopoulos describes himself as a “dangerous faggot” with a preference for passive sexual relations with dark-skinned men—proof, as he likes to say, that he is no racist. His commercial success is indisputable: his Youtube page alone has 500,000 followers. The genius of Breitbart Media was to combine the public’s prurient curiosity about sexual freaks with a right-wing political agenda, attacking political correctness with its own exemplars. This post-modern turn in conservative politics was the brainchild of Steve Bannon, without doubt the brightest mind in political media today.
Friend and enemy alike recognize the 32-year-old Yiannopoulos as a cultural icon who personifies the contradictory character of the movement that brought Donald Trump to power. A speech scheduled at the University of California at Berkley on February 1 fell victim to the sustained assault of masked left-wing vandals determined to prevent the “dangerous faggot” from being heard. No other figure on the political right elicited the outrage that greeted Yiannopoulos at the erstwhile home of the Free Speech Movement. The vandals caused US$100,000 in damage and severe injuries to a few bystanders. No ideologue of the traditional right ever provoked this scale of response, which testifies to the enormous influence that Yiannopoulos wields in the strange new world of right-wing politics.
Steve Bannon, Yiannopoulos’ employer before he chaired the Trump campaign, famously worries about the future of civilization. In the case of Yiannopoulos, one has to weigh the relative merits of cure and disease. Transgressive outrage, to be sure, can expose the fake piety and hypocrisy of political correctness. But this comes at the cost of normalizing behavior which Western civilization long sought to discourage.
Permit me to contrast Yiannopoulos’ form of outrage with another cultural icon, in this case, the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Last May, she strode to the Steinway at Carnegie Hall in impossibly high heels and a gown that left nothing to the imagination, and played Beethoven’s most difficult piano work better than any Westerner has played it. Not just better: I am convinced that Ms Wang is the only pianist who has ever played it correctly, possibly excluding Franz Liszt, who gave its premiere in the 1830s. That is a professional opinion. I am the classical music critic for Tablet Magazine, and was a doctoral student of Carl Schachter, the dean of American music theorists. The whole performance can be seen on Youtube.
In Western terms, Ms Wang is guilty of blasphemy: the concert hall with its proscenium stage and dimmed lights was from the beginning a secular temple in which art replaced religion, with the performer as celebrant. To play the Beethoven Sonata Op 106 in B-flat major (the “Hammerklavier”) in dishabille is like celebrating mass in see-through pajamas. For the West, Beethoven is a Romantic hero, the synthesis of courage and beauty, the valiant voice of individualism, the saint and martyr of a secular cult. That’s how I was taught to worship him as a young music student. Ms Wang does not project sexual tension; on the contrary, she is immersed in the music with a murderous intensity. The fact that she performs in a backless gown slit almost to the waist evinces utter disregard for convention. Actually, Beethoven by 1818 was a cranky, nasty old man with a weird sense of humor. He was still capable of grand gestures of humanitarian enthusiasm, for example the 9th Symphony, but also composed gnomish, eccentric pieces like the Op 119 and Op 126 Bagatelles or the C-sharp Minor String Quartet Op 131. Some of his late works are colossal failures, for example the “Great Fugue” Op 133. Until Yuja Wang came along I thought the great Op 106 Sonata was one of them. Then I learned better. Every Western pianist I had heard perform the work over the years, from Mieczyslaw Horszowski to Daniel Barenboim, performed it as if it were the mummified body of an uncorrupted saint. Ms Wang got Beethoven’s joke and treated it as a grand, relaxed Mephistophelian romp, full of stops and starts, crude musical jokes, and downright bloodymindedness.
To do this of course, she had to be one of the greatest technicians ever to attack a keyboard. The Hammerklavier’s Fugue (at 34:00 on the linked Youtube recording) requires the pianist to do two things at once with the same hand, sometimes trilling furiously with two fingers while articulating a melody with the other two. This requires not only preternatural agility but the ability to think of several things simultaneously and execute two of them with the same hand. Ms Wang accomplished this with gossamer transparency. It is a capacity given to a very few. Yuja Wang already had a superlative concert technique at the age of eight (when she recorded a video of Beethoven’s fiendishly difficult Sonata Op 53, the “Waldstein,” also available on Youtube).
Ms. Wang is much more than a digital gymnast, though. She came to Beethoven with none of the preconceptions that clog up the interpretations of Western musicians. We Westerners want the Beautiful to also be the Good. We want our Great Artists also to be exemplary human beings. That is an insuperable obstacle to proper performance of the late Beethoven, who was a nasty piece of work. This was emphasized to me by Professor Schachter, who reminded his students that Beethoven demanded the right to sleep with his friends’ wives. There is something cold and impish about Ms Wang, an affinity for the Mephistophelian side of Beethoven. It is uplifting and frightening at the same time. Beethoven’s nasty humor is a thousand times more frightening than, say, the tubby bombast of a Richard Wagner. It is the heartless joke of a composer who could uplift you if he felt like doing so, but would rather tease and confuse you for his own amusement.
I hasten to add that I understood none of this until Yuja Wang showed it to me. Never have I been so humbled as a Westerner, trained in the great tradition by teachers whose own training goes back via Heinrich Schenker to the immortal Johannes Brahms. I disliked the Hammerklavier Sonata, thinking it a compositional failure on the order of the Great Fugue. I found out that the problem was that I had never heard it performed properly, and it was musically too difficult for me to work it out from the score. A 30-year-old Chinese woman is teaching Beethoven to the West, if it wants to hear. Compared to that, leapfrogging the West in mathematics and physics would be minor accomplishments. Yuja Wang has penetrated to the inner sanctum of the Western soul, including its nasty side, and understood us better than we understand ourselves.
China well might overwhelm the West, not by brute force and mass production and discipline, but spiritually and intellectually. If China wanted to lull the West into complacency in preparation for world conquest, it could do no better than to perpetuate the myth that the Chinese are bright, disciplined and hard-working, but characteristically uncreative, clever at stealing the intellectual property of others but unable to invent anything new on their own. If you believe this, you have no idea what is about to hit you.
On average, Chinese may be less inclined to innovate than Americans — the culture is inherently more conformist — but that says nothing about their capacity to innovate. The present generation of Chinese entrepreneurs includes many brilliant innovators, some of whom I came to know as a partner in a Hong Kong investment banking boutique. But there are also Chinese who have seen through to the most recondite secrets of Western culture and mastered them in a way that no Westerner has. The Beautiful is not the Good. Beethoven’s greatest piano sonata has a nasty side.
To Westerners who have never listened carefully to a Beethoven sonata, much less performed one, this may sound overwrought, if not deranged. It is inadequately understood in the West that mathematics and physics emerged in partnership with music. I have a contribution or two myself to the scholarly literature on the subject. China’s imperial system has its weaknesses, and China may misplay the historic opportunity that it now encounters. But if China fails, it will not be for lack of exceptional minds.
East Asia values discipline, concentration, long years of practice and utter mastery; with an exceptional head start and rare talent, Yuja Wang has earned the imperial right to conjure up Beethoven as a kindred spirit and transgress in his giant footsteps. The West values offhandedness, improvisation, luck and self-made celebrity, the qualities that make Yiannopoulos a figure of admiration for the Right and an object of obloquy for the Left. In whose hands are the great accomplishments of the West more secure?