On 13 April 1742, George Frederick Handel’s great oratorio, Messiah, was premiered in Dublin, Ireland. After an orchestral overture, the first words of the work issue from the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah. “Comfort ye,” he sings. At least, that is how he would have put it had he been speaking with Handel over a pint of ale in a Publick House in London. The words are sung mezzo voce, neither loudly, nor softly; the dramatic gesture expressed not through the thundering skies nor the eternal body of God, but through the mouth of a human being, a comrade, as it were. Following these first words the oratorio continues through various arias and choruses which, over the next couple of hour, relate the pivotal events in the life of a man known as Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, and taking into account the lovely music that follows, I am not sure there is a more sublime gesture in the entire oratorio than the moment when the Prophet Isaiah sings, “Comfort ye.” For these words speak to us all, regardless our birth, our life, or the death that awaits us. In the same year, far away to the east, the Baal Shem Tov, born Israel ben Eliezer—and also son of Sarah, by the way—then approximately forty-two, was bringing a similar message to Eastern European Jewry, mired as it was in hopeless poverty, its spiritual leaders in a state of conservative paralysis following the debacles of the preceding century. The Baal Shem’s iconoclastic words of comfort and hope, however, along with his legendary actions, were not meant as prophesy; his interest lay not in what would be, but in what is, in man’s direct relationship to God here and now. The way the Baal Shem interpreted that relationship had little to do with scholarship or privilege, but rather with something more personal and readily accessible to anyone, joy. Not only was his message one of joy, it was meant to be heard across barriers of class and caste. For him knowledge of God was not limited to the province of the Talmudic scholars nor to the ruling Rabbis, According to the Baal Shem one needed neither special language, nor esoteric prayers, not arcane knowledge. Every soul who so desired could involve him- or herself in a relationship to and with the divine. A person needed only his or her heart. One needed only to respond. The simplicity of this message, brought to a downtrodden populace, was a fervent spark which lit a brilliant flame of hope, of renewal. Several decades later, in the swirls of the Sturm und Drang movement that was then sweeping through the German Principalities and beyond, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller wrote a poem called “Ode to Joy,” a lengthy poem most of us would probably not even notice today if it had not captured the interest of the young Ludwig van Beethoven, who, as early as 1796, was trying to set parts of it to music; later it would be the text around which both the “Choral Fantasy” of 1808 and the final movement of this Ninth Symphony (1822-1824) would revolve. Schiller’s poetic concept that all mankind could become brothers and sisters through joy, that “brilliant spark of the gods, daughter of Elysium,” was seductive to a man influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution which were prevalent in Europe during Beethoven’s early years. What
I find interesting, however, is not that he was influenced by these ideals, but that he did not abandon them as did many others. Incensed by what he believed was an act of betrayal on the part of Napoleon Bonaparte— namely the act of having himself crowned Emperor—Beethoven nonetheless doggedly persevered in expressing his own fervent ideals, not only in 1808, but again in his last years. Furthermore, these ideals of Fraternity and Liberty were variously expressed not merely in the aforementioned works, but in page after page of his oeuvre. Toward the end of his Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802—a letter written to his brothers, though never sent— in which he bemoans the sorry state of his life and the horrible reality of his encroaching deafness, we find him begging Providence for one day of pure joy, just one. As most of you know, he did not have an especially lovely childhood, and adulthood was made difficult not only by his increasing deafness but by other health problems, as well as the lack of a soul mate and the self-incurred legal struggle to gain custody of his nephew. It was highly doubtful he ever got his one day of pure joy. In an odd way, however, he may have, though it was a day shattered into many shards and strewn over a lifetime, minutes of joy etched into the structures of his music; moments which radiate nothing if not joy; moments we find impossible to listen to without responding with joy. While these waves of joy are most obvious in such works as the finale of the Ninth Symphony when the chorus shouts out, “Freude! Fruede! Backed by a full orchestra, nevertheless the “brilliant spark of the gods” is palpable throughout his entire oeuvre. Herein lies his genius, that in all the muck and mess of his life he persevered in his search for that one day of pure joy, and while he may not have found it in the living reality of his life, he left behind a pilgrimage littered with clefs and notes and rests which when listened to bring us not the sounds of a demigod, but of a human being struggling with the same issues each of us today struggles with. Whereas in Handel’s oratorio the words of Isaiah are sung with a gesture of comfort, in Beethoven we are confronted not with what might be little more than hollow prophecy, but with the same immediacy as that of the Baal Shem, a call for passionate involvement not only with life but with the divine. And how is that involvement to be expressed? Through joy, among other things. Looking at our contemporary world, it appears we are only able to relate to joy either through flaccid superficiality, or with cynical resignation, a shrug of the shoulders, a denial that it even exists. After all, advocates of the latter will tell us, of what concrete use were the Baal Shem’s ideals as millions of Jews were being murdered during the Shoah? And, the music of Beethoven prevented neither the hideousness of Hiroshima nor the quagmire of Vietnam, events which, even as they were perpetrated, were couched by their espousers in terms of goodness, of the future peace and a happiness of humankind. Unable to discover in ourselves a river of dark, ominous, exultant joy, we destroy it in others. Perhaps this is because we’ve forgotten that joy is an encompassing gesture: within its waters are not only delight and rapture, but also
anguish and despair. The brilliant spark of joy cannot exist without the fuel of our anguish, and every time we push away the anguish through denial or resignation, joy is pushed farther from our lives. Joy wraps itself around anguish not in order to eradicate it, but to comfort it, as it were. Remove the sorrow form within joy and you are left with a shell; remove the radiance from our sorrows and we are left with nothing but cold cinders. Years ago I read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he wrote of how a simple smile can be the first step toward peace. At the time I thought sarcastically, Oh great, a bit of chipperness and all the world’s problems are solved. This, of course, is not at all what he was advocating. Thich Nhat hanh, we must remember, is a man who knew firsthand the horrors of the Vietnam War, a Buddhist monk who, when he smiles radiates what can only be described as joy, not in spite of the anguish in his heart—sorrows which, after all, will remain with him for the rest of his life—but alongside, above and around the darkness, encompassing it, illuminating it. In this way a smile born of anguish, a joy arising from within the despair of what life brings to all of us in one form or another, is a foundation upon which peace can exist. Without that foundation, which is nothing more than a life fully lived, we are forced to choose between superficiality and cynicism. Each time Beethoven set Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music, the results were ever more bizarrely radiant, jaggedly joyous; not because he became a more perfect composer, but because the hues of his life had deepened, ever shaded by the composer, but because the hues of his life had deepened, ever shaded by the events of that same life. The power of this lies not in its idealism, but in a persistent engagement with life which surfaces generation after generation, though it is often little more than a tiny spark. One of my friends is severely disabled. A combination of cerebral palsy and brain damage at birth left him incapable of speaking, walking, chewing, or feeding himself. As an infant he even had difficulties swallowing. To this day he wears a diaper at all times, except when he is being bathed. Though the doctors recommended he be placed in an institution as an infant, where he would then live out his life in a more or less vegetative state, the boy’s family refused to part with the child. At the age of fifteen or so he underwent an operation which allowed his legs to straighten enough for him to walk, though not without constant assistance and supervision. In fact, the whole reason I know him is because I used to go to his house several times a week in order to bathe him, feed him, and walk with him up and down the streets of his neighborhood. During the years when I helped him with his hygiene and his therapies, he was prone to intense outbursts of anger, frustration, and confusion, as well as of joy, exultation, and delight. His emotions were as straightforward as they were enigmatic. One could never exactly locate their origins. For instance, on Monday the water pouring out of the shower would delight him. On Tuesday it would only enrage him. When angered he would bite down hard on his hand and violently shake his body or stamp his feet. His face would contort into a visage of unfettered restraint, without subtlety. As an example, he is quite fond of ice cream, and often
when out walking we would take the opportunity of a respite to buy an ice cream. Usually, as soon as he had figured out what the plan was, he would lift his head back with a great smile and scream at full voice, his torso swinging back and forth in a sort of dancing/boxing motion. Whenever my friend expresses extreme emotions such as rage or joy, his initial body language is precisely the same; in other words, when an emotional outburst comes it is quite difficult to tell from the contortions of his face whether he is experiencing rage or joy. For several moments they are indistinguishable one from the other, and, believe me, the joy is as formidable as the anger. I am always relieved for his sake if it turns out to be the former. When it is anger, the people around him can attempt to find a solution and perhaps fix the problem. Just as likely, however, they remain in a state of unknowing, even though something real or imagined is obviously causing my friend intense anguish. While most people seem perfectly capable of expressing unbounded rage, my friend is one of the few human beings I have ever met who can embody unbridled joy, a joy as frightening as it is ebullient. In fact, his expression of joy is what once precipitated our being thrown out of a local café for “frightening the tourists.” The Prophet Isaiah saying, “Comfort ye.” Beethoven practically screaming at us through the choruses and orchestras of his deafness, “Freude! Freude!” The Baal Shem joyfully singing and dancing with God in the very arms of misery. All of these are encompassed in joy, though none of them is made any more comprehensible by being touched with its radiance. It remains, however, within the incomprehensible where we may most powerfully discover our own joy.
from Living, Loving, and Other Heresies by Zsolt published by Conundrum Press buy the book at store.conundrum-press.com
Published on Dec 9, 2011
Author Zsolt reflects on the nature and expression of joy through Handel, Beethoven, Baal Shem, and his friend with cerebral palsy.