The simple mind does not like change, which it may resist to the point of self-annihilation. The ability to acknowledge, appreciate and embrace the complexity of systems has always been a valuable attribute.
In the developed world today it is essential. In my lifetime, we have gone from national economies to a global economy, completely upsetting the balances in political economies across the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, citizens, using their power in democratically elected governments, could exert control over the economic forces surrounding their lives. That is no longer the case. Today, partly because of the instant worldwide information exchange made possible by the internet, corporations can relocate to another country quickly and with relative ease. As a result, they demand favorable economic treatment, and elected national “leaders” are practically required to acquiesce to their demands. The locus of power has shifted from national governments (politics, in which citizens have power) to large multi-national corporations (economics, in which citizens do not have power), with all the attendant consequences: income redistribution that starves the middle class, insulation of giant corporations from reasonable rules and regulations to ensure that they act responsibly, and a progressive political shift in favor of an increasingly radical right wing. If this situation persists – and I see no evidence that it will not, the income level of the average person will level out across the world. People in the United States, where incomes for the middle class had long been historically high, will not like it but unless we can find a way to regain control over economic systems, that result is inevitable.
And that is the good news. The bad news is that the average international yearly wage and standard of living will decline, relative to what it had been. This must and will occur unless corporate power is brought under control. A nation, even one as large and powerful as the United States, is virtually powerless to do anything about it, because if she treats corporations less favorably than another country is willing to do, that corporation soon will be operating overseas.
You will not hear any of that in the political discourse in the United States today. The issues are too complex and the challenges too daunting for most people. The changes that have occurred during the lives of every voter who is alive today overwhelm our capacity to respond to them. The problem is not hard to see. People see it but do not fully understand it, and most especially do not know what to do about it. So politicians continue to speak as though this was still the middle of the 20th century, because that is the system people understand: the one that prevailed when the United States sat atop the world. All of this is a product of overwhelming complexity. Unless we address these matters like responsible adults, I fear that the United States, and the world economy, is in for calamitous times.
- Noah Feldman, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR'sGreat Supreme Court Justices (Twelve, 2010).
- Meryle Secrest, Modigliani: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), on a mercurial but gifted artist who was plagued by health problems.
- Peter H. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956 (Harper / HarperCollins Publishers, 2017): “A Writer Aware of Her Contradictions”
- Peter H. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963 (Harper / HarperCollins Publishers, 2017): this volume, “which spans her entire marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes and its aftermath, and includes many letters that had not previously been published, provides one of the most vivid and intimate accounts of her life to date.”
- Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Knopf, 2020): “Shifting the Focus From Sylvia Plath’s Tragic Death to Her Brilliant Life”.
- Ron Chernow, Grant: A Biography (Penguin Press, 2017). “As history, it is remarkable, full of fascinating details sure to make it interesting both to those with the most cursory knowledge of Grant’s life and to those who have read his memoirs or any of several previous biographies.”
- Walter Stahr, Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary (Simon & Schuster, 2017). “A man of keen emotion and contradiction, Stanton called forth a half dozen clashing adjectives from Seward . . . and even more than that from New York diarist George Templeton Strong, who had to settle for summarizing him as ‘strangely blended.’ Stahr admits that his subject was ‘duplicitous and even deceitful,’ but argues that he was ‘a great man’ if not a good one.”
- Lauren Hilgers, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown (Crown, 2018): “. . . the patriot of her title, a Chinese activist and immigrant named Zhuang Liehong, comes across as frustrating and, at times, downright infuriating. But Zhuang is also determined and dreamy, suspicious and generous — he becomes real to us, in other words, an inextricable combination of noble and naïve.”
- Stephen L. Carter, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster (Henry Holt & Company, 2018): “ . . . one can’t shoehorn lives like Eunice’s into bite-size stories of triumph. Struggle demands nuance. Truthful narratives demand complexity. Stephen L. Carter has revived his grandmother’s voice when we most need it, and with utmost urgency.”
- Tim Riley, Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion, 2011): “Here is Lennon in the fullness of his diffracted personality, across the spectrum of his phases and faces.”
- Irwin F. Gellman, The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 (Yale University Press, 2015): “Like many Nixon scholars, Gellman believes that there were two Nixons. His private Nixon was a thoughtful pragmatist. The demagogy was political theater. ‘Nixon,’ Gellman writes, ‘the inflexible anti-Communist in public, was far more flexible in private.’”
- Hilary Spurling, Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to “The Good Earth” (Simon & Schuster, 2010): “Generally (Spurling) acknowledges the ‘heavy, cumbersome, potentially toxic baggage’ Buck carried with her but leaves us to unpack it. We are to connect the dots between the boorish husband and the fictional scenes of marital rape; the doctrinaire father and Buck’s fierce aversion to racism, sexism and, for that matter, missionaries. Vested early on in the power of narrative, Buck waged her own battle against ignorance and superstition, powerfully bridging two cultures that seemed mutually incomprehensible. In effect, she turned her father’s mission on its head.”
- Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004): “‘Living memory,’ Oz says, ‘like ripples in water or the nervous quivering of a gazelle's skin in the moment before it takes flight, comes suddenly and trembles in a single instant in several rhythms or various focuses, before being frozen and immobilized into the memory of a memory.’ On the threshold of such flight, however, every moment seems fraught, meaningful and wholly serious, like ‘the velvety depth’ of his childhood sky and ‘the repeated notes on the piano, climbing and stumbling over and over again up a broken scale.’”
- Patrick Boucheron, Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear (Other Press, 2020): “Boucheron invites us to think through how Machiavelli became synonymous with unscrupulous despotism when the real man suffered for his republican allegiances.”
- Robert Elder, Calhoun: American Heretic (Basic Books, 2021), “an illuminating account of the life of the notorious white supremacist as well as his complex afterlife in American political culture.”
- Edward White, The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021), “presents the reader with 12 portraits of Hitchcock, taken from 12 different angles — including ‘The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up,’ ‘The Voyeur,’ ‘The Pioneer,’ ‘The Family Man,’ ‘The Womanizer,’ ‘The Dandy.’ There is no verdict to be issued, no single identity most authentic or true. His selves clash and coexist, as they did in a life that spanned the emergence of feminism, psychoanalysis and mass advertising, and a career that mapped onto the history of film itself, from the silent era to the rise of television.”
- Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “One of the great achievements of this impressive biography — which rises to the challenge of introducing Donne and his world to the next generation of readers — is that it shows how these two Donnes were always one and the same; his looks may have faded and his occupation and faith may have undergone yet another wrenching transformation, but his intellectual restlessness and brilliance, as he obsessively meditated on love and death, flesh and spirit, remained constant.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, WAB 105 (1876, rev. 1878, rev. 1896) (approx. 70-90 minutes), escapes the understanding of most professional musicians. Some see it through a lens of Bruckner’s life. “'All the joy and pleasure have gone out of my life; it seems utterly pointless and futile.' . . . Begun in a mood of deep despair, the Fifth Symphony is Bruckner's most astonishing triumph of mind over matter. Of all the Bruckner symphonies, it is the one least amenable to canonisation by those conductors convinced of the composer's saintliness, but it does reveal most starkly its creator's strength of spirit.” Others identify its magnificently complex structures. “Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major may be the most architectural symphony ever written. Constructed with monumental building blocks which are assembled according to principles of balance, proportion, and repetition, its four movements add up to a majestic and soaring musical structure. It takes us on a gradual, time-altering procession which requires that we remain attentive and rooted in the moment.” Benjamin Zander probably captures the essence of the work best in his discussion, contained in a companion disc to his recording of the work with the Philharmonia Orchestra (see below). It is a work of spiritual transcendence, complex musical structures, and dozens of other features. Perhaps, then, it best illustrates complexity. Top recorded performances are conducted by Furtwängler in 1942, Ormandy in 1965, Jochum in 1982, Sawallisch in 1991, Celibidache in 1993, Abbado in 1994, Wand in 1996 ***, Zander in 2009, Ballot in 2018.
Milton Babbitt was "a Composer Who Gloried in Complexity" and "extended Schoenberg's serial organisation of pitch structure to other parameters, including rhythm, dynamics and instrumentation. . ." He "used his knack for mathematics to create a modern musical language that was eloquently complex, fearlessly dissonant and so dense that even critics sometimes struggled to explain its importance . . ."
- Milton Babbitt, The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt (Princeton University Press, 2003).
- Stephen Dembski and Joseph N. Straus, eds., Milton Babbitt: Words About Music (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).
- Andrew Mead, An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (Princeton University Press, 1994).
- Documentary film: Portrait of a Serial Composer
- Audio: On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer
His compositions include:
- Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964)
- Correspondences for string orchestra and synthesized tape (1967)
- Composition for 12 Instruments
- Tableaux (1973)
- Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1974)
- Arie da Capo
- Four Play
- Canonical Form for piano (1983)
- Lagniappe (1985)
- Composition for Guitar
- Compositions for Four Instruments
- All Set
- Three Compositions
- Partitions and Post-Partitions for Piano
- Concerto for Piano
- String Quartet No. 2 (1954)
- String Quartet No. 3 (1970)
- String Quartet No. 4 (1970)
- String Quartet No. 5
- String Quartet No. 6 (1993)
- Clarinet Quintet (1996)
- Septet but Equal
Late symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann:
- Jeff Nichols, Chelsea Square (1994)
- Jason Eckardt, Echoes’ White Veil (1996)
- Michael Finnissy, North American Spirituals (1998)
- Milton Babbitt, Allegro Penseroso (1999)
Other works of New Complexity music:
- Pintscher, Hérodiade Fragmente (1999)
- Pintscher, Music from Thomas Chatterton (1998)
- Pintscher, Sur 'Départ' (1999)
- Ferneyhough, Prometheus, for woodwind sextet (1967)
- Ferneyhough, Times and Motion Study I (1971-77)
- Ferneyhough, Times and Motion Study II (1977)
- Ferneyhough, Times and Motion Study III (1974)
- Alexander Scriabin, 9 Mazurkas, Op. 25 (1899)
Other works illustrating complexity:
- A prominent feature of human complexity is that we are bundles of contradictions. Argentinian composer Martin Palmeri has set this to music by combining the form of a Christian mass with racy tango themes and rhythms in his Misa Tango (Misa a Buenos Aires).
- Fennelly, Wind Quintet (1967)
- Barber, Piano Sonata in E flat minor, Op. 26 (1949)
- Carter, String Quartet No. 3 (1971): this string quartet is divided into two duos.
- Raga Miyan ki malhar, a Hindustani classical raag associated with torrential rains and exhibiting “profuse ornamentation, oblique movements and slow glides” (performances by Banerjee, Jasraj and Viayat Khan). (The quotation is from The Raga Guide, put out by the Nimbus CD company.)
- Magnus Lindberg, Aura (1994): “Colors change constantly and the rhythmic drive is insistent . . .”
Music from Anders Eliasson (b. 1947):
- Quartetto d’archi (String Quartet) (1990-91)
- Quintetto per clavicembale e quartetto d’archi (Quintet for cembalo and string quartet) (1984-85)
- Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford, “Trio (London) 1993”
- Anthony Braxton, “3 compositions of new jazz”
- Alex Sipiagin, “Balance 38-58”
- Brandon Lopez, Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey, “No es la Playa” (2022): free jazz and on-the-fly composition
Film and Stage
- Dinner at Eight: the film’s title captures the central joke, a spoof on the difference between social convention and life: “Nothing goes as planned, due to various suicides, double-crosses, compromises, fatal illness, and servant problems. But dinner is served precisely at eight.”
- About Schmidt, in whichJack Nicholson presents a “sorrowful awareness of human complexity.”
- Kawasaki’s Rose(Kawasahiko Ruze), “a chronicle of two betrayals”: “. . . the point of this thoughtful, moving film is that the motives and actions that define human ethics are never simple and that the Communist regime was especially adept at exploiting this complexity for its own ends.”
- House of Games: about the intricacy of lives caught up in deception
- The Searchers: a former Confederate soldier who has difficulty grasping the moral complexities of his life; “a remarkable portrait of a man incapable of answering to anyone but himself, who ultimately has more in common with his despised Indians than with his more ‘civilized’ brethren”
- Trainspotting, an emotionally complex film with superficially silly characters
- Match Point, a Woody Allen drama, reflecting his view of the world as a place where people use each other for their own ends, and vast differences can be measured in an inch.
Novels by Louise Erdrich display the value of complexity:
- Louise Erdrich, LaRose: A Novel (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2016): “Perhaps the most important of Erdrich’s achievements is her mastery of complex forms. Her novels are multivocal, and she uses this multiplicity to build a nest, capacious, sturdy and resplendent, for her tales of Indians, living and dead, of the burden and power of their heritage, the challenge and comedy of the present’s harsh demands.”
- Louise Erdrich, The Round House: A Novel (Harper, 2012): “Law is meant to put out society’s brush fires, but in Native American history it has often acted more like the wind. Louise Erdrich turns this dire reality into a powerful human story . . . ”
- Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: A Novel (Harper, 2001): “ . . . there is a mixture of the mundane and magical reminiscent of that idiosyncratic blend of the real and the surreal in Ms. Erdrich's fiction, as well as a litany of sufferings and gory ordeals, reminiscent of the travails and bizarre twists of fate sustained by her characters.”
- Louise Erdrich, The Master Butchers Singing Club: A Novel (Harper, 2003): “ . . . she has shifted her focus away from the town's Indian population toward its largely German, Polish and Scandinavian citizens. Through the experiences of these characters, she seeks to show the malign impact of European wars and hatreds upon a new but almost equally bloodstained world.”
- Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum: A Novel (Harper, 2005): “Marrying cultures can prove as difficult for the writer as the priest. Erdrich's great strength lies in her ability to inhabit, with utter conviction, the characters on either side of the culture gap, not to mention those caught in the wide no-man's-land between.”
- Louise Erdrich, Four Souls: A Novel (Harper, 2004) “The central characters in Louise Erdrich's latest novel are defined by the opposing qualities within them . . . ”
- Louise Erdrich, The Sentence: A Novel (Harper, 2021): “Set mostly in the year 2020, which itself came to seem haunted as Covid spread and the deaths piled up, this novel restores to us all the messy detail of an almost amnesiac time when, worn down and exhausted, ‘we skied weightlessly through the days as if they were a landscape of repeating features.’”
How language can obscure life's complexities:
- V.V. Ganeshananthan, Brotherless Night: A Novel (Random House, 2023), “isn’t really about terrorism or terrorists. It’s about all the ugly little human complexities those words are designed to obliterate, about what it means to have a much less straightforward relationship with violence and the people responsible for it.”
- Joyce Carol Oates, The Accursed: A Novel (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2013): reviewing this book for the New York Times, author-of-the-macabre Stephen King writes: “‘Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel . . . It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people.’”
- Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Little, Brown & Company, 2013): “. . . the great weight of the book (shifts) quickly from the right hand to the left, a world opening and closing in front of us, the human soul revealed in all its conflicted desperation. I mean glory.”
- Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Liveright, 2020): “. . . a metafictional, metaphysical tale narrated by a man struck dead by pneumonia. Too grim? I neglected to mention that he’s being carried into the afterlife on the back of a voluble and enormous hippopotamus.” (insurrections against the novel itself, and banal realism)
- Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories (Riverhead Books, 2020), featuring complex female characters.
- Phil Klay, Missionaries: A Novel (Penguin Press, 2020): “All four (main characters) are damaged beings meeting in a damaged place; building a coherent novel out of such chaos-prone material requires order, structure, architecture. Klay is very disciplined, giving his characters regular turns at the microphone to tell their stories . . .”
- R.V. Raman, A Will to Kill: A Novel (Polis Books, 2021): “There seem to be several crimes going on at once, and a lot to pay attention to: an art scam, a drug ring, the falsification of identities, not to mention a spot of adultery.”
- William Boyd, Trio: A Novel (Knopf, 2021): “Rotating through (the main characters') three points of view in short, snappy chapters, the narrative rapidly generates a prodigious quantity of subplots, each adding its own pressure to the general sense of impending disaster.”
Did I follow Truth wherever she led,
And stand against the whole world for a cause,
And uphold the weak against the strong?
If I did I would be remembered among men
As I was known in life among the people,
And as I was hated and loved on earth,
Therefore, build no monument to me,
And carve no bust for me,
Lest, though I become not a demi-god,
The reality of my soul be lost,
So that thieves and liars,
Who were my enemies and destroyed me,
And the children of thieves and liars,
May claim me and affirm before my bust
That they stood with me in the days of my defeat.
Build me no monument
Lest my memory be perverted to the uses
Of lying and oppression.
My lovers and their children must not be dispossessed of me;
I would be the untarnished possession forever
Of those for whom I lived.
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Herman Altman”]