Faced with ISIL, what possible good is an 'Ode to Joy'? | St. Louis Public Radio

Faced with ISIL, what possible good is an 'Ode to Joy'?

Oct 8, 2015

With ISIL breathing down our necks, and with political shenanigans raining down upon us from ideological thunderheads; with racism and its various crippling spawn bedeviling us;  with apparently intractable financial, educational, residential and vocational inequities confronting us; with guns, guns, guns everywhere; with the reality of catastrophic climate metamorphoses; with the rendings of the fabrics of families; with contempt for knowledge: In the face of all of this, how is it that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra would have the cheek to present to its audiences Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9  in D Minor, the Choral Symphony with its “Ode to Joy?”

Beethoven introduces Schiller’s fulsome and optimistic poem in the symphony’s fourth movement, and so stirring is it, and so confident, you might wonder why a work of art of such demanding complexity would be performed in October, 2015, this dark and deservedly joyless moment in human history. Just when you think things cannot possibly get any worse, The New York Times reports that by December, 4.7 million refugees from Syria or Iraq will have sought asylum in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Our region's combined statistical area has a population estimated in 2014 to be just over 2.9 million.  Why, in this unenlightened era, are we are presented with an Enlightenment summons to wrap ourselves in the wings of Joy?

Beethoven's influence is so great that even graffiti artists in Austria portray his likeness.
Credit flickr | southtyrolean

Without too much fear of contradiction you could say the pursuit of joy is worthy on a number of fronts, from the most selfish and transitory to potential employment as a means of existential rejuvenation and as a partisan in efforts to bring about human rebirth and redemption. Apparently a hankering for joy is an undeniable, hardwired human condition. Differentiating an elevated and enduring and ineffable blissfulness – genuine joy -- from simple quotidian happiness, Aristotle claimed,  “For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” 

The Koran understands joy as coming from faith and moral muscle: “Those who believe and do right: Joy is for them, and bliss their journey’s end.”

In Buddhism, sympathetic joy – taking pleasure in someone’s fortune, including one’s own – is one of the four immeasurables.

With Freud, there is the id-lodged pleasure principal, which is in tension with the death drive. Both are essential;  pushing the definition a bit, joy – the achievement of genuine vital contentment and pleasure – is the antithesis of the death drive, or death wish.

Joy, or the pursuit of it, is not a nicety but a necessity.

And so, Friedrich Schiller’s poem begins properly with this, after an introduction supplied by Beethoven:

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.

Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

It is here that we, living in such a benighted age, run into trouble with the “Ode to Joy” (originally called the “Ode to Freedom”) and our contemporary situation. The business of the magic powers of the Daughter of Elysium reuniting us, and their ability to cause all men (and women) to be brothers (and sisters) might provoke us to slam on the brakes of pragmatism and to holler “Naïve Escapism!”

Such a characterization might have its own veracity. But if we push aside the rather risible specter of going to Elysium to meet its daughter,  a serious pilgrimage in pursuit of moments of transcendence may lead to lives of personal satisfaction. Such a commitment seems worthy rather than naïve, and confrontational rather than escapist.

It was Confucius, after all, and not Perry Como, who advised lighting one little candle optimistically rather than cursing the darkness with pessimism.

I know Beethoven fares well at the box office, and that selling tickets at this moment in the history of the music business is a worthy and necessary occupation. And yet, I know too that the intelligence and courage required of those who commit their lives to the risky  music business  encourages all of us to understand that scheduling the Beethoven Ninth has meaning far beyond filling seats and selling tickets. It is art that is essential to carrying out the mission of music, to help us to bring order to a world best described as chaotic.

In the 65 minutes spent with the musicians, and with Beethoven and Schiller and the  majesty of their  congregation of music and words,  we are allowed not only refuge from the various darknesses we have created but also have had opened for us an opportunity to go forward with hope and courage, and with a sense we might seek peace in ways our talents and intentions may take us.

In the end, after all, peace is just another name for joy.