Lectures/Scripts/WritingsSpeechesHope in the Nuclear Age

Hope in the Nuclear Age

By Leonard Bernstein

All Souls Unitarian Church, 27 January 1985

I have been casting about for a week now in search of some way to follow the various acts I have been following: Senator McGovern, and Lewis Thomas is one of my personal heroes, not only as a great doctor but arguably one of the greatest essayists. I idolize him obviously. Also I am obviously stalling. The hardest act to follow is without a doubt your minister, Dr. Church. I read a few of his reprinted sermons. Some of my best friends are members of this church. Recently I played the organ at a wedding here. I am nervous about being in this lineup. Let me reach back for a moral booster to lines from Dr. Church's sermons that leapt off the page and made me feel shockingly at home. "The simple truth is Jesus was wrong." I can't remember ever hearing that kind of talk from a pulpit. Number two: "Over the centuries, more evil and violence have been perpetuated in the name of God than under any other name." Wow. Perfectly true, but wow. Then I read, "The devil does her best work when no one suspects she's lurking about." (Shakes) Incorrigible. "So tell me, said God, what is going on in the U.S. Presidential election? Well, Ma'am, answered the angel". When I read that my jaw just dropped and I suddenly felt better. I had my cue for action, but that's not all by a long shot. Your minister moreover and more importantly confides in you, even relating his private anxiety dreams. He shares his doubts with you. He confesses his own insecurities, and always includes himself in the very congregants to whom he preaches. These qualities of open confidentiality and profoundly serious chattiness and the striving to communicate on every possible level, all these add up to what must be called simply love. Clearly, he loves you. He loves the temple of God that each of you is, he loves the small universe that has been given to him in trust and he loves words. Well, so do I. And it is this love also known to Christians as charity, from what St. Paul called "caritas".

It is this loving motivation that prompts me to be as equally frank and informal and intimate with you as I can. In fact I would like to begin these remarks with a confession of my own and finish them with another. My first was elicited by a passage I read from the same sermon by Dr. Church last October, one month before election day, and these words have not let me rest since I read them. Quote: "I am speaking here of something that might be called sophisticated resignation"--do you remember that speech?--"Many of us", he goes on, "are victims of it. We tend to be so well informed, so aware of the enormity of the problems, that we can only shrug our shoulders and shake our heads and sigh as events unfold around us. This morning, therefore", I'm still quoting, "once again I am preaching to myself as well as to you. Perhaps tonight as we all watch the candidates debate we will be inspired to shed our cynicism, move from the sidelines and participate in small but significant ways in the political process." And now comes his punch line, "Anyone who has not sufficient faith in the democratic process to participate fully in its workings has relinquished his or her moral authority as a critic of its practitioners however far they fall from the mark we may set." That last sentence is the one that knifed me and moved me to make this confession now. Because I have been guilty of this very fault. Simply put, I skipped election day. You see, I had been conducting for some months in Europe and my last tour happened to end in Spain on November 1, just in time to go home and vote. But no. I stayed on in Barcelona for the whole first week of November, and I admit I had a marvelous time. I visited the medieval capitalistic center of Gerona, I spent an afternoon at Montserrat and heard the boys sing, and another whole day in the Dali Museum in Figueres. I danced sardanas on Sunday morning at the cathedral square with what seemed like half the population of Barcelona.

But all that time I was sinning. And I confess it. I copped out. I just couldn't face the farce, the personality cultishness, the Miss America pageantry of the candidate shows, including the Olympics in Los Angeles and the super Olympics in Dallas, to say nothing of all that outrageously un-American pulpit politics. But hardest of all for me to face, and this was months earlier, was the cop out of the Democratic party in San Francisco. That's when I first gave up, watching in despair the formation of a non-platform, or at least one in no way significantly different than that of the incumbency. Watching the rejection of a unique opportunity to make a statement to bear witness to the unwelcome but incontrovertible truth of Black Power in America, to the national crime of inexcusable poverty, to the craven fear of losing votes (which is one dandy way to lose votes) to the fear of one's own fears, to our military enslavement by a mindless war machine of our own mindless making...etc. So I too copped out, fell victim to the very disease against which I had been so long warning others about in so many years of speeches, symposiums, discussions, intimate conversations. I fell ill with that highly infectious disease: passivity. And thus infected, I passed all of last year, election year, without making a single public statement, neither at a university or on TV or did I join in to register potential voters, nor did I stand on a street corner distributing pamphlets, nor did I contribute to a single political brochure. For peace, yes, for the freeze, of course, I talked, I played, I conducted, I did everything I could. But for the political process, nothing. Nothing but silently raging at the frustrating certainty of that reelection juggernaut accompanied by the inexorable tread of the media with the incumbent being reelected daily on the cover of the New Yark Times, in the big magazines, on the giant networks. At a certain point I suddenly knew that the secret love of America and the NATO countries fervently desired this reelection, however secretly, and at that moment I succumbed to the contagion of that diabolical disease called passivity. I stayed in Spain. I didn't even apply for an absentee ballot.

I sinned, and I'm not trying to excuse myself, to seek ecclesiastical absolution for my fault, but to try to share with you whatever knowledge I have gained through my sinning about this disease so that we might all perhaps better protect ourselves from it. How does one describe a disease? I know precious little about it except for what our friend Dr. Lewis Thomas has taught us. One gathers statistics eventuating in a sort of etiology. One tries dutifully to distinguish between anecdotal and clinical evidence. One invokes the empiricism of scientific method, to pile up knowledge, even if it should seem irrelevant. One seeks the virus, whether of cancer, AIDS, the common cold. One seeks a possible vaccine, ultimately one seeks a cure.

Well, here are some of my clinical observations on passivity. The disease attacks as a sudden insight, a false insight that we are doomed to repeat the anguish of through all our history, that we never learn, that we go through the same ghastly cycles over and over again because we are victims not of predestination or some sort of astrological fatalism, but of something we laughingly call human nature. And it's this imaginary nightmarish affliction human nature, our diseased insight tells us, that causes us to repeat endlessly barbaric invasions, imperial conquests, destructions of Jerusalem in every metaphorical and literal sense, the persecution of saints, inquisitions, genocides, 30 years wars and 100 years wars, great civil and great world wars, holocausts, holy wars, witch hunts, crusades, Dreyfus affairs, McCarthyisms, strike breakings, color bigotries, blood brother treacheries, brain washings in the name of the state, the religion, the race, the ideology, fascism of the soul, Nazism of the psyche, the malice of pieties, the sheer seductiveness of power.

Enchanting, all of it, hard to resist, delightful to experience. The perfect paradise of being passive. Such is the bliss this virus proffers and promises and such are some of the symptoms we not only suffer but surely invite, as surely as I stand here today, as surely as I danced the sardana in Barcelona. Actually this virus was named centuries ago by a doctor of the Trinitarian Church, St. Augustine, and appropriately enough in Latin: libido dominandi. It sounds medically authentic, doesn't it? Libido dominandi, the lust for domination. It is the most grievous fault, said St. Augustine, the sin of pride in full bloom. Since God had given Adam dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and over the cattle...over all the earth and every living thing that moveth upon the earth, unquote. Ah, but that is Genesis 228, when only before in Genesis 226 Adam was given dominion over all the above, except that the passage ends "and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth". And that of course is what God must have really meant, not every living thing that moveth over the earth, because that would naturally include irrational beings like men and women. Not to make a theological exercise of this divine editorial slip, we must acknowledge that God did not have in mind man dominating man. But trickily intelligent as man is. He can always devise a way of perceiving his fellow man as a creeping thing which creepeth upon the earth if it satisfies his convenience, his greed, his pride. This is the name of the game, domination, and the virus, the virus with which I too was last year infected.

Of course the anti-virus has also been described for centuries, or else we wouldn't still be here, right? And not only in Latin but in every language, described by Homer, Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, Schiller, Elliot, Auden, and most recently James Merril, namely man's noblest quality is capacity to change. Animals can't change, a fox remains a fox, a rat is a rat forever. But man says, says Hamlet, says Virgil, Freud, Marx and Beethoven, man can change, improve, grow, participate in the godhead. What a piece of work is a man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty. And yet here we are in 1985, not 1185 when the Pope and the Byzantine emperor were screaming at each other over who owns Christendom, not 1185, but 1985 when here we are playing the very same ego games we've always played, only cuter, more state of the art, like star wars, nation states, porn busters, get the Jew, master mind, master race, master--that's our password. Who's on top, who's got more, etc. more money. We--and I don't mean only we Americans, but we folks of the planet--we, those lovely folks who brought you in loving color, the black mask, the yellow peril, the red menace, the purple rain, the greening of America, the blue laws and agent orange--we have to be on top; it hardly matters on top of whom. But on top if only just a millimeter above someone else. Anyone else. In other words, we all have a basic elemental need for a lower class, even if only a slightly lower class. Everyone has this need. Every starving Ethiopian has his falasha, his Jew to kick around and feel better than, or has had until very recently. Because now every Iraqi Jew in Israel has his Ethiopian to do the dirty jobs, to serve dinner and sweep up the muck. And before that Tunisian Israelis had the Iraqis, and before that Yeminites had Tunisians, and before that European Israelis had the Yeminites...and so it goes. Everyone has someone lower and weaker: a dog has his fieldmice, a redneck has his black. We seem doomed to perpetuate and act out the original myth of compulsive superiority. A myth formed, if you will forgive me in this church, a myth formed in the very holiness of creation. Only think of God and his angelic board of directors deciding to make man. Let us make man, they said, but even at the dawn of time there existed this necessity for inferior beings. They said let him not eat of the fruit of one special tree, that of knowledge, lest he become like unto us. So, no apples. Even among the angels themselves we have to learn of upper and lower classes, upper and lower orders. Even angels apparently needed these distinctions as well when there were presumably no other beings with whom to compete, and yet there they were, divided into three social strata, or so Dr. Thomas Aquinas tells us. Three hierarchies each containing three subsets--three within three, how Trinitarian can you get? The first hierarchy consisting of seraphim, cherubim, and thrones; the second, much lower, comprising dominations, virtues and powers; and the lowest, embracing ordinary angels, certain creatures known as principalities, and get this, the archangels, poor little things. Who would have imagined such an arbitrary array? But every Ethiopian must have his falasha, every Russian his Pollack, every Serbian his Croat.

What then is the subject of my sermon? The sermon itself? The fact that I am here making it, the fact that I have spent the this week writing it, rewriting it, weeping over it, making a try. Because either all the above mentioned horrors are inevitable and we shall all perish--not merely of nuclear folly but of our own malignant passivity--either that or we do something about it. Anything, everything. Whatever we can and know how to do. More than we can, more than we know how, in order somehow to carry out our most pressing functions of moral witness, every one of us in his or her own way, including myself in my own way, in more than my own singular way if there is such a singular thing as my own way. For example, these days I am in the midst of writing a new opera. The theme of which is very close to what I have been saying today, namely do we never learn? Are we hopelessly doomed to repeat ourselves? Is there any real truth in the tired old human nature argument? Or is the truth to be found in man's capacity to change? Can we take moral action, or is our every attempt a predetermined failure?

My librettist and I am certainly not seeking to propound answers to these questions. That would be pretentious as well as an aesthetic betrayal, the function of art being not to preach but to touch. No, our answers to those questions will be the very existence of the opera itself, and the very act and the fact of its creation, just as my answer today is my simply being here. But in the course of working on this opera I have been feeling that sense of do we never learn with increasing bitterness. The materials of this opera are not yet public knowledge, but I can confide in you at least this much: that it covers a fifty-year span from the mid-30's to the present, from the rise of Hitler with its attendant catastrophes to our times, the 80's, when so many of those dangerous signals are again flashing and ringing and beeping with alarming frequency. I've been saturating my brain and that of my collaborator, with readings about those signals. I've gone deeply into memoirs of Auschwitz and the Lodz ghetto, into the ugly interlocking of propaganda machines busily churning out hatred, not only in Berlin but in every capital of the world. And I have thus lately become a reluctant authority on anti-Semitism. I find to my sorrow that it is as rife today as ever and all over the globe. The publications flourish everywhere. In London there is the Spearhead, New Nation, National Front News, others. In Germany, Der Angriff, Das Bodensee Tagblatt, Die Deutsche Wochenzeitung, Die Deutsche National Zeitung; in Turkey, the Beirach; in Sweden, Bible Researcher; in Australia, Eric Butler's Intellligence Survey; in Johannesburg, the South African Observer, etc. And here at home a scarily long list commencing with the American Mercury, Spotlight, the National Educator, the Journal of Historic Review, and on and on. Most of these repeat all too familiar platitudes drawn from millennia of scurrilous slander, including whole hunks lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf. Others are out to prove that the Diary of Anne Frank is a hoax, others, calling themselves revisionist historical studies, are busy proving that the Nazi Holocaust never really occurred. Can you imagine that there are at this moment somewhere between 60 to 100 published books that pretend to reveal that the Holocaust is a Zionist fiction, that all the thousands of eye witnesses were hirelings or worse, that the hundreds of thousands of concentration camp photographs are all faked? Imagine these books exist and are widely circulated with titles such as Debunking the Genocide Myth, The Myth of the Six Million, why go on? But perhaps the most virulent journalistic activity is the worldwide resurgence in dozens of languages of that mid nineteenth century hoax called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This forgery was clearly exposed over 100 years ago, but it won't give up. Excerpts appear constantly and with particular regularity in the Soviet Union, of course, sometimes updated to involve the relatively new state of Israel, or else jazzed up in various other ways. But the basic poisonous message of the Protocols remains constant: beware the international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world and rule it. Get them before they get us. That old refrain as though nothing had happened at all.

What say, shall we have another lovely war about it? Indeed, we do not seem to have learned. We have come this far, all the way from Lao Tzu and Jeremiah and Jesus without seeming to accept the simple fact that war is obsolete. No one can win anymore and we have not yet found ways short of murder to act out our suppressed rages, hostilities, mistrusts, xenophobias, provincialisms, parochialisms, and that old need for superiority, that libido dominandi. We still need some kind oflower classes, slaves, prisoners, enemies, scapegoat. I guess we're not doing much better than the angels, are we, with their upper and lower orders, hierarchies, and choirs.

But we can still resemble the angels in one positive way. We can participate in the godhead, be it Jehovah, Allah, or the divine spirit which is invoked in this room. We know what it is to have touched the source oflove, caritas, if only for infantile moments at the mother's breast. For if we know what it is to receive love, we must also know by imitation, automatically, however you want to name it, by Freudian transfer, role reversal, however we want to name it, we must also know what it is to give love. We know it even if we don't know we know it.

"And though I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries, all knowledge, and have not charity, I am nothing" Corinthians 1:13. Charity, caritas, the commandment to love. Of course there is little basis for believing that the Pentagon is going to be swept by waves of love, equally hopeless is the notion of caritas flooding the Kremlin. But still, the Pentagon and the Kremlin are composed of people, though it's sometimes hard to believe, discrete individuals who presumably value their lives and we can only assume love their children. So again it comes down to the perception of love. One by one, you, me, Casper W., Comrade X., it comes down to that and because of that, to the moral injunction to participate in the political process. That stern injunction to which I confess to have broken. And so again it comes back to where we began this meandering Sunday morning stroll through the woods of reflection and self questioning, and we find th the only antidote to the disease of passivity or to the poison of anti-Semitism is after all the commandment to love. And the only weapon we have with which to fight against the military murder of our fellow man and of our very selves is also love. Let me once more and finally quote from your minister: "Nuclear disarmament", he said, "and the Christian love commandment are almost interchangeable". I would go further to say that they are interchangeable, that they form an equation and the solution of that equation is what your hero and mine Albert Schweitzer called the will to love. I take that phrase very seriously, not merely as a typical German philosophical motto predictably derived from Kant and Schoppenhauer, but as a spontaneous creative insight, one that speaks to me personally because it is almost a definition of the meaning of my life. Not out of principle, reason, or conviction or education, but mysteriously, genetically, phsychobiologically. The will to love guides my living from day to day, always has, and always has messed it up to a remarkable degree. And still does.

Which brings me to my second and final confession. I wish it didn't. The will to love is exhausting. It causes one to love far too many people, to love them deeply with commitment. It is obviously very difficult if not impossible to honor so many commitments simultaneously, or even one at a time, over considerable geographic expanse. It is unfair to those I love, especially to those who love me in return, and therefore causes suffering, which is the opposite of what the will to love intends. This is true not only of beloved individuals but of whole families, including my own, including my orchestra families around the world, for in conducting one I can obviously not be conducting all the others. Because love is so demanding of time and energy, it causes my work to suffer, compositions to remain uncomposed, old and new scores to remain unlearned.

But all that is my problem, not yours, and as we Juditarians say, it should only be my worst problem it it is in fact the will to love that has brought me here today instead of sleeping late or doing a puzzle or reading the Times or writing an opera. This is not however time that I regret in the least nor a single minute of the time it took to compose this sermon. It is instead my joy, my deep joy, to be with you and try to reinforce in my own way that will to love so eloquently preached to you every Sunday by your inspired minister. It's not easy to preach love in out sophisticated twentieth century, to make a fresh variation on a theme played and replayed and varied and revaried by so many great minds over such a long time, and never so eloquently than in its original form: (Hebrew) v'ahavta eit adonai elohecha. And then especially as chystalized and epiphanized by Jesus himself.

For that matter it's not easy to say anything about love without drifting into cliche. How far is any statement on love from any given pop song lyric? Love is the answer, our love, be my love, all you need is love, and the greatest, Charlie Chaplin's (sings) It's love love love ... And yet I try today, tomorrow, as long as I live, cliche to the contrary. Probably the best I could have done today is to remind you of what you surely knew already of the life or death importance of living out the will to love, to remind you by personal confession of success or failure, and my own struggle to make love a practiced reality, to remind by nudging your awareness and my own of the profound moral imperative we share to make our lives into a moment by moment uninterrupted action of bearing witness. If we can pray, let us pray. I know of only two ways to pray. One is to say thank you and sing a song. The other is to pray that our boastfully called divine spark, our pilot light, that little blue flame that is our capacity to love, that little light may never be extinguished as long as we inhabit this wonderful earth with one another. I'm not sure whether I have the clerical authority to say Amen, but I think here in this good and pleasant place I will chance it. Amen.

(The program ends with a hymn; LB sings standing next to the minister with the congregation)

[Video Copyright All Souls Unitarian Church; Television production and editing facilities provided by Price Waterhouse]

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